Luening, Otto Clarence

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Luening, Otto Clarence

(b. 15 June 1900 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; d. 2 September 1996 in New York City), composer, flutist, and educator who influenced the course of twentieth-century American music through his tireless advocacy on behalf of his fellow composers and his pathbreaking work in electronic music.

Luening was the youngest of the seven children of Eugene Luening and Emma Jacobs. The family was of distinguished German lineage; both his parents were educated at the German-English Academy in Milwaukee, which was founded by Luening’s paternal grandfather. His mother was a singer, and his father was a pianist, singer, and conductor who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory and sung under Richard Wagner. He served as the director of the Milwaukee Musical Society from 1879 to 1904.

Luening grew up on the family farm in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He demonstrated musical prowess at a young age and basically taught himself piano. When Luening was four years old, his father began to supervise his piano studies, although he initially discouraged his son from a career in music. In his autobiography Luening recounts his father saying, “I do not want any of my children to be a musician.… An artist’s life is much too difficult in the United States.” Luening composed two small piano pieces, his first musical compositions, at the age of six.

In 1909 the Luenings sold the farm and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where Eugene Luening assumed a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin School of Music. This proved to be a less-than-satisfactory situation, and in 1912 Eugene Luening made the decision to take his wife and Otto with him to Munich to pursue musical opportunities. The move to Munich coincided with young Luening’s graduation from the seventh grade and marked the end of his formal education.

In Munich, Luening received private tutoring in languages, literature, and history. He frequented museums, attended concerts, and in general continued his selfeducation. In 1913 he began private flute studies with Alois Schellhorn and in 1915 enrolled in the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik as its youngest student. He continued to compose and made his concert debut as a flutist in 1916.

When the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in 1917, Luening and his sister Helene moved to Zurich. He continued his musical work at the Zurich Conservatory, where he studied theory, conducting, and score reading with Philipp Jarnach, a former pupil of the composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni. His studies in Zurich were subsidized by Edith Rockefeller McCormick, who had supported the work of Jarnach and James Joyce. Luening also supported himself by playing percussion and flute in the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. In this position he had the opportunity to perform under such conductors as Richard Strauss and Arthur Nikisch. During this time Jarnach introduced him to Busoni, who was very supportive of Luening’s compositional work. Luening met Joyce in 1918, and he performed with Joyce’s theatrical company during the 1918 and 1919 seasons under the stage name of James P. Cleveland.

Luening returned to the United States in 1920, settling in Chicago at McCormick’s suggestion. He studied with Wilhelm Middleschulte, a major Bach scholar. In general, Luening found the musical environment in Chicago to be disappointing following his years in Europe. To support himself he played in movie house orchestras, taught music theory, arranged gospel hymns, and conducted choral societies. McCormick continued to encourage his compositional work and arranged for private performances of some of his works at her home. Luening was one of the founders of the American Grand Opera Company in Chicago, which was dedicated to performances of works in English. He conducted the premiere performance of Charles Wakefield Cadman’s opera Shanewis with the company in 1922.

In 1924 Luening’s work Sextet (1918) was recommended to the committee of the United States section of the International Society for Contemporary Music. Among the committee members was the composer and Eastman School of Music director Howard Hanson, who offered Luening a position in the opera department of the Eastman School in Rochester, New York, beginning in 1925. Luening stayed at the Eastman School through 1928. He coached singers, handled a myriad of administrative duties in the opera department, and served as the assistant conductor and eventually conductor of the Rochester American Opera Company. During his time at Eastman he met Ethel Codd, a Canadian-born singer. They were married on 19 April 1927.

In June 1928 Luening and his wife left the United States for a year’s stay in Cologne, in part to further Ethel’s career in German opera houses and to reestablish contact with Jarnach, who was an important faculty member at the Cologne Conservatory. Luening hoped to find work as a conductor or teacher. However, he found the environment in depressed, pre-Nazi Germany to be very different from what he experienced during his teenage years in Munich. His application for a Guggenheim Fellowship was denied, and he and Ethel returned to the United States in 1929 and settled in New York City.

Luening did receive a Guggenheim Fellowship the following year, which enabled him to write his opera Evangeline, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s narrative poem about the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia by the English. He and Ethel traveled to Nova Scotia as well as to Louisiana to experience Acadian culture firsthand. Luening did not complete Evangeline until 1947; it premiered at Columbia University in 1948.

Luening was a member of the faculty of the University of Arizona at Tucson from 1932 to 1934. In 1934 he was invited to join the faculty of the newly created Bennington College in Vermont. While at Bennington he developed the music department’s programs, encouraging exposure to and awareness of new American works. He invited such prominent figures as the poet Carl Sandburg (whom he had originally met in Tucson) and the composers Paul Hindemith, Carl Ruggles, and Henry Cowell to the Bennington campus for special guest residencies.

Luening was involved with music projects of the Works Progress Administration from 1935 to 1939, continuing to encourage the promotion and performance of American music. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he helped to organize music festivals at Bennington and elsewhere. He became increasingly involved with administrative activities to promote contemporary American works and was a founding member of several key music organizations, including the American Music Center (1939), the American Composers Alliance (1938), and the nonprofit recording company Composers Recordings (1954).

In 1944 Luening was appointed to the position of musical director of Brander Matthews Hall at Columbia University, where he conducted the premieres of several American operas, including his own Evangeline. He also taught at Barnard College, Columbia’s undergraduate institution for women, where he served as the chairman of the music department from 1944 to 1948. Luening taught at Barnard until 1964 and at Columbia until 1968, when he was named professor emeritus and music chairman of the School for the Arts. He retired from Columbia in 1970 and taught at the Juilliard School from 1971 to 1973.

Luening became involved with electronic music during his years at Columbia University. His 1952 works for flute on tape, Fantasy in Space, Invention in Twelve Tones, and Low Speed, were among the earliest electronic music compositions. He cofounded the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center with the composers Vladimir Ussachevsky, Milton Babbitt, and Roger Sessions in 1959; it was one of the first electronic music laboratories in the United States.

Following Luening’s retirement from his academic posts, he remained active as a composer, administrator, writer, and spokesman on contemporary American composition. During his lifetime he composed more than three hundred works, many of which are characterized by their creative juxtapositions of musical styles. Among his many prominent composition students were Chou Wen-Chung, John Corigliano, Mario Davidovsky, Charles Dodge, Ezra Laderman, Seymour Shifrin, and Charles Wuorinen. He received numerous honors and awards, commissions, and honorary degrees, including three Guggenheim Fellowships, the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award (1981), and the first American Composers Alliance (ACA) Laurel Leaf Award (1985).

Luening and Ethel Codd were divorced in 1959, following a lengthy and difficult separation. On 5 September 1959, he married pianist Catherine Johnson Brunson. Luening had no children from either marriage. He died at age ninety-six.

Luening’s openness to exploring new paths in his compositions and his understated yet indefatigable advocacy of American works had a profound influence on the development of twentieth-century musical life. He was a consummate musician who was highly respected by all who were privileged to work with him.

Luening’s papers are at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in New York City. His autobiography, The Odyssey of an American Composer (1980), provides a detailed description of his life and career. The other major book-length work about Luening is Ralph Hartstock, Otto Luening: A Bio-Bibliography (1991), which includes citations to hundreds of articles about the composer and his works through 1989, as well as a list of his compositions (through 1986), a discography, and a list of his own writings. An obituary is in the New York Times (5 Sept. 1996). An unpublished oral history is available in the Oral History Collection of Columbia University in New York City.

Jane Gottlieb