Powell, Mel (real name, Melvin Epstein)

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Powell, Mel (real name, Melvin Epstein)

Powell, Mel (real name, Melvin Epstein ), remarkable American composer and teacher; b. N.Y., Feb. 12, 1923; d. Valencia, Calif., April 24, 1998. He acquired an early fascination for American jazz, and was barely 14 when he was chosen as pianist for Benny Goodman’s band. It was then that he changed his name to the more mellifluous Mel Powell, restructured from that of his paternal uncle, Poljanowsky. He was drafted into the army, where he was selected for the Air Force Band led by Glenn Miller. While playing jazz, Powell also began to compose. Tragedy struck at the height of his powers as a jazz musician and composer when he suddenly contracted muscular dystrophy; the disease affected his quadriceps, and he was ultimately confined to a wheelchair. He could still play the piano, but he could no longer travel with a band. He turned to serious composition and became an excellent teacher. While he was working with the Goodman band, he took lessons with Wagenaar and Schillinger in N.Y. (1937–39); he later studied composition privately with Toch in Los Angeles (1946–48). A turning point in his career occurred in 1948 when he entered the Yale Univ. School of Music in the class of Hindemith, from whom he acquired the matchless skill of Teutonic contrapuntal writing; he received his B.Mus. degree in 1952. From then on, Powell dedicated himself mainly to teaching. He served on the faculty of Yale Univ. (1957–69), and was dean of music at the Calif. Inst. of the Arts in Valencia (from 1969), serving as provost (1972–76) and as a prof. and fellow (from 1976). As a composer of growing strength, he revealed versatile talents, being technically at home in an incisive jazz idiom, in a neo-Classical manner, tangentially shadowing Stravinsky, and in an expressionist mode of Schoenberg, occasionally paralleling the canonic processes of Webern. He also evolved a sui generis sonorism of electronic music. In all these asymptotic formations, he nevertheless succeeded in projecting his own personality in a curious and, indeed, quaquaversal way; while absorbed in atonal composition, he was also able to turn out an occasional march tune or waltz figure. In all these mutually enhanced formulas, he succeeded in cultivating the unmistakable modality of his personal style without venturing into the outer space of musical entropy. In 1990 he received the meritorious Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Duplicates, a concerto for 2 Pianos and Orch. Powell described this work as a “perpetual cadenza,” an expression he attributed to Debussy.


ORCH.: Cantilena concertante for English Horn and Orch. (1948); Symphonic Suite (1949); Capriccio for Concert Band (1950); Intruda and Variants (1956); Stanzas (1957); Setting for Cello and Orch. (1961); Immobiles I-IV (1967); Settings for Jazz Band (1982); Modules, intermezzo for Chamber Orch. (1985); Duplicates, concerto for 2 Pianos and Orch. (Los Angeles, Jan. 26, 1990); Settings for Small Orch. (Los Angeles, Sept. 23, 1992). CHAMBER : 2 string quartets: No. 1, Beethoven Analogs (1949) and No. 2, String Quartet 1982 (1982); Harpsichord Sonata (1952); Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello (1954); Divertimento for Violin and Harp (1954); Divertimento for 5 Winds (1955); Quintet for Piano and String Quartet (1956); Miniatures for Baroque Ensemble for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Harpsichord (1958); Filigree Setting for String Quartet (1959); Improvisation for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano (1962); Nocturne for Violin (1965; rev. 1985); Cantilena for Trombone and Tape (1981); Woodwind Quintet (1984–85); Setting for Guitar (1986); Invocation for Cello (1987); Amy-abilities for Percussion (1987); 3 Madrigals for Flute (1988). Piano : 2 sonatinas (1951); Etude (1957); Intermezzo (1984); Piano Preludes (1987). VOCAL : 6 Choral Songs (1950); Sweet Lovers Love the Spring for Women’s Voices and Piano (1953); Haiku Settings for Soprano and Piano (1961); 2 Prayer Settings for Tenor, Oboe, and String Trio (1963); Cantilena for Voice, Violin, and Tape (1969); Settings for Soprano and Chamber Group (1979); Little Companion Pieces for Soprano and String Quartet (1979); Strand Settings: Darker for Soprano and Electronics (1983); Letter to a Young Composer for Soprano (1987); Die Violine for Soprano, Violin, and Piano (1987). ELECTRONIC : Electronic Setting (1958); 2nd Electronic Setting (1961); Events (1963); Analogs I-IV (1963); 3 Synthesizer Settings (1970–80); Inscape, ballet (1976); Variations (1976); Computer Prelude (1988).


The Return of M. P. (1987); The Best Things in Life (1999); It’s Been So Long (1999).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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Powell, Mel (real name, Melvin Epstein)

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