Becker, John J(oseph)

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Becker, John J(oseph)

Becker, John J(oseph), remarkable American composer; b. Henderson, Ky., Jan. 22, 1886; d. Wilmette, Ill., Jan. 21, 1961. He studied at the Cincinnati Cons, (graduated, 1905), then at the Wise. Cons, in Milwaukee, where he was a pupil of Alexander von Fielitz, Carl Busch, and Wilhelm Middleschulte (Ph.D., 1923). From 1917 to 1927 he served as director of music at Notre Dame Univ., then was chairman of the fine arts dept. at the Coll. of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. (1929–35). He was subsequently Minn. State Director for the Federal Music Project (1935–41) and prof. of music at Barat Coll. of the Sacred Heart at Lake Forest, Ill. (1943–57). He also taught sporadically at the Chicago Musical Coll. His early works are characterized by romantic moods in a somewhat Germanic manner. About 1930 he was drawn into the circle of modern American music. He was on the editorial board of the New Music Quarterly, founded by Cowell, and became associated with Charles Ives. He conducted modern American works with various groups in St. Paul. Striving to form a style that would be both modern and recognizably American, he wrote a number of pieces for various instrumental groups under the title Soundpiece. He also developed a type of dramatic work connecting theatrical action with music. Becker’s music is marked by sparse sonorities of an incisive rhythmic character contrasted with dissonant conglomerates of massive harmonies.


DRAMATIC: The Season of Pan, ballet suite for Small Ensemble (c. 1910); The City of Shagpat, opera (c. 1926–27; unfinished); Salome, film opera (c. 1931; unfinished); Dance Figure: Stagework No. 1, ballet for Soprano and Orch. (1932; includes music from Salome); The Life of Man: Stagework No. 4, ballet for Speaking Chorus and Orch. (1932^43; unfinished); Abongo, a Primitive Dance: Stagework No. 2, ballet for Wordless Voices and 29 Percussion Instruments (1933; N.Y., May 16, 1963); A Marriage with Space: Stagework No. 3, ballet for Speaking Chorus and Orch. (1935; arr. as Sym. No. 4, Dramatic Episodes, 1940); Nostalgic Songs of Earth, ballet for Piano (Northfield, Minn., Dec. 12, 1938); Vigilante 1938, ballet for Piano and Percussion (Northfield, Minn., Dec. 12, 1938); Privilege and Privation: Stagework No. 5c, opera (1939; Amsterdam, June 22, 1982); Rain Down Death: Stagework No. 5a, incidental music to the play by A. Kreymborg for Chamber Orch. (1939; also as A Prelude to Shakespeare for Orch., 1937, rev. as Suite No. 1 for Orch., 1939); Dance for Shakespeare’s Tempest, incidental music for Piano and Chamber Orch. (1940; unfinished; arr. by M. Benaroyo as The Tempest for 2 Pianos, 1954); When the Willow Nods: Stagework No. 5b, incidental music to the play by A. Kreymborg for Speaker and Chamber Orch. (1940; includes music from 4 Dances for Piano and from Nostalgic Songs of Earth; rev. as Suite No. 2 for Orch., 1940); Antigone, incidental music to the play by Sophocles for Orch. (1940–44); Trap Doors, incidental music to the play by A. Kreymborg for Speaking Chorus and Piano (n.d.; unfinished); Deirdre: Stagework No. 6, opera (1945; unfished); Julius Caesar, film score for Brass and Percussion (1949); Faust: A Television Opera, monodrama after Goethe for Tenor and Piano (1951; Los Angeles, April 8, 1985); The Queen of Cornwall, opera (1956; unfinished); Madeleine et Judas, incidental music to the play by R. Bruckberger for Orch. (1958; radio perf., Paris, March 25, 1959); The Song of the Scaffold, film score (1959; unfinished). ORCH.: Sym. No. 1, Etude Primitive (1912; Minneapolis, June 17, 1936); (2) Cossack Sketches (1912); A Tartar Song (c. 1912); Sym. No. 2, Fantasia tragica (1920; not extant; rev. c. 1937); Sym. No. 3, Symphonia brevis (1929; first complete perf., Minneapolis, May 20, 1937); Concerto arabesque for Piano and 12 Instruments or Small Orch. (1930; St. Paul, Minn., Dec. 7, 1931); Horn Concerto (1933; N.Y., Feb. 8, 1953); Concertino Pastorale: A Forest Rhapsodie for 2 Flutes and Orch. (1933; Cincinnati, Jan. 13, 1976); Mockery: A Scherzo for Piano and Dance Orch. (1933; first concert perf., N.Y., March 17, 1974); Viola Concerto (1937); Piano Concerto No. 2, Satirico (1938; St. Paul, Minn., March 28, 1939); 2 suites: No. 1 (1939; San Francisco, Jan. 15, 1983; from the incidental music to Rain Down Death) and No. 2 (1940; from the incidental music to When the Willow Nods); Sym. No. 5, Homage to Mozart (1942); Victory March (1942; from the Sym. No. 6); The Snow Goose: A Legend of the Second World War (1944); Violin Concerto (1948; Chattanooga, Jan. 18, 1983). CHAMBER: Sonate American for Violin and Piano (c. 1925; South Bend, Ind., July 28, 1926); 8 Soundpieces: No. 1 for Piano Quartet (1932; N.Y., Nov. 13, 1933; also for Piano and String Quintet, 1933, and for Piano and String Orch., 1935), No. 2a, Homage to Haydn: String Quartet No. 1 (1936; also for String Orch., 1936), No. 3: Violin Sonata (1936; St. Paul, Minn., April 1, 1940), No. 4: String Quartet No. 2 (1937; Lake Forest, Ill, Oct. 19, 1947), No. 5: Piano Sonata (1937; St. Paul, Minn., April 13, 1943), No. 6: Sonata for Flute and Clarinet (1942; Chapel Hill, N.C., April 26, 1970), No. 7 for 2 Pianos (1949), and No. 8: String Quartet No. 3 (1959; unfinished). Piano: Sonata, The Modern Man I Sing (c. 1910); The Mountains (c. 1912); My Little Son, 18 Months Old: Studies in Child Psychology (1924); 2 Architectural Impressions (1924); 2 Chinese Miniatures (1925; arr. for Orch. by R. Kraner, 1928); 4 Dances (1938). VOCAL: Rouge Bouquet for Tenor, Men’s Voices, Trumpet, and Piano (1917); Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, cantata for Speaker, Soprano, Tenor, Chorus, and Orch. (1929; St. Cloud, Minn., July 19, 1931); Missa symphonica for Men’s Voices (1933); Sym. No. 6, Out of Bondage, for Speaker, Chorus, and Orch. (1942); Mass in Honor of the Sacred Heart for 3 Equal Voices (1943); Moments from the Passion for Solo Voices, Chorus, and Organ (1945); The 7 Last Words for Women’s or Men’s Voices (1947); Moments from the Liturgical Year for Speaker, Speaking Chorus, Soloist, and Chorus of 3 Equal Voices (1948); Sym. No. 7 for Speaking Chorus, Women’s Voices, and Orch. (1954; unfinished); also many solo songs. OTHER: Orchestration of Ives’s General William Booth Enters Into Heaven for Baritone, Men’s Chorus, and Small Orch. (1934–35).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire