Best known as a pioneer of electronic music, Otto Luening was an American composer, conductor, flutist, and teacher, as well as an ardent supporter of contemporary music. During his lengthy and prolific career, Luening produced more than 350 compositions in a variety of styles, mostly chamber music. Yet his experimental and electronic arrangements—comprising only a small fraction of his life’s work—marked him as an innovator in the field.
Although he never attained the fame of such composers as Aaron Copland, George Antheil, or Henry Cowell, music historians acknowledge Luening’s substantial contribution to an American style of music unbound by European traditions. With the Russian-born composer Vladimir Ussachevsky, Luening presented the first American electronics concert at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on October 28, 1952. Also with Ussachevsky, Luening established the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center—the first workshop of its kind in the United States—in Manhattan in 1960.
Born in 1900 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Otto Clarence Luening was the son of German immigrant musicians. One of seven children, he spent his early childhood on a farm outside Milwaukee with his father, a pianist and conductor, and his mother, a singer. At age four he started taking piano lessons with his father. At age 12 Luening moved with his family to Munich, where his father sought to pursue a musical career. Here Luening studied orchestration, harmony, flute, and piano at the Staatliche Hochschule fur Musik. With his family he attended concerts and became well versed in the music of Richard Strauss and other composers. At age 16 he made his debut as a flutist.
When the United States joined World War I in 1917, the Luening family fled Munich for Zurich, where refugees found a safe haven. Here Luening studied at the Zurich Conservatory under Volkmar Andreae; he also had a brief stint as an actor and stage manager with James Joyce’s Zurich-based English Players Company. Most significantly, he took private lessons with the composer and pianist Ferrucio Busoni, whose innovative and experimental style greatly inspired and influenced the young musician.
In 1920 Luening returned to the United States, settling in Chicago. To support himself, he played flute in a cinema orchestra accompanying silent films. He also played chamber music, arranged hymns, and conducted the American Grand Opera Company. All the while he continued to compose, producing experimental works. Perhaps the finest of these during this period was his Symphonic Fantasia No. 1 (1924).
In the mid-1920s Luening relocated to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where Howard Hanson and Vladimir Rosing offered him a job as voice coach and assistant director of the opera
For the Record…
Born Otto Clarence Luening on June 15, 1900, in Milwaukee, WI; died on September 2, 1996, in New York, NY; son of Eugene Luening (a pianist and conductor); married Ethel Codd, 1927; divorced, 1959; married Catherine Brunson, 1959. Education : Studied at the Zurich Conservatory, Switzerland, 1917-20.
Debuted as flutist, age 16; played flute accompaniments to silent films, arranged hymns, conducted American Grand Opera Company, Chicago, early 1920s; became executive director of opera department, Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York, mid-1920s; taught at the University of Arizona, 1932-34; also taught at Bennington College (Vermont) and Barnard College (New York); joined faculty at Columbia University, mid-1940s; with Vladimir Ussachevsky, presented first American concert using electronics, New York, October 28, 1952; cofounded Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, 1960; continued composing music through the mid-1990s.
Awards: Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) Award, Lifetime Achievement, 1990.
department. He rose to executive director of the department and became conductor of the Rochester American Opera Company. Meanwhile Luening gained a solid reputation in the world of opera, and in 1930 he began work on his own opus, Evangeline, based on the narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
A beloved teacher, Luening taught music at the University of Arizona from 1932 to 1934; he then took a one-year post at Bennington College in Vermont. In 1944 he relocated to New York, where he taught music first at Barnard College and then at Columbia University. As director of Columbia’s Opera Theater, he conducted several important premieres, including Virgil Thompson’s Mother of Us All, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, and his own long-in-coming Evangeline.
It was at Columbia that Luening began to fully explore his interest in electronics. In 1947 the Russian composer Vladimir Ussachevsky joined the university staff, and the two, who shared an interest in the musical possibilities of magnetic tape, began to work together. Their collaboration led to the creation of several works featuring live performers combined with recorded sounds. In their early works together, the conductors experimented with tape recordings of Luening’s flute compositions.
In October of 1952 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the duo debuted the first concert featuring electronic music. The program included Luening’s Fantasy in Space —and featured Luening playing flute live with his accompaniment on tape—and Low Speed Invention, as well as Ussachevsky’s Sonic Contours. The concert, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, was hailed as a sensation. Almost overnight, Luening and Ussachevsky clinched their reputation as innovative composers pioneering a new musical form. Working both alone and with Ussachevsky over the next 15 years, Luening wrote more than 20 compositions for synthesizer, tape, and acoustical instruments. In 1960 he and Ussachevsky cofounded the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, a workshop that attracted some of the most promising young American composers and students during the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet Luening did not focus exclusively on electronic music. He was a prolific composer of chamber music, and he wrote several works in a more eclectic American style. The latter included Kentucky Concerto (1951) and two paeans to his home state, Wisconsin Suite (1955), based on nursery tunes, and the Wisconsin Symphony (1975). At age 80, Luening published his autobiography, The Odyssey of an American Composer, in which he allotted only one chapter to his work with electronic music. “My philosophy is that there are different kinds of music for different purposes,” Luening told the New York Times in 1980. “The common thread in all my work is a love of people and a love of music.”
A lifelong supporter of new music, Luening cofounded the American Composers Alliance in 1937, the American Music Center in 1939, and Composers Recordings Inc. (CRI)—a still-active contemporary music label—in 1954. Succeeding Henry Cowell, he served as director of New Music Editions and New Music Quarterly Recordings.
Though Luening received many honors and held numerous appointments, he remained a figure largely undiscovered by mainstream audiences. Only a fraction of his work survived on recordings. “I never was interested in sharpening my talents to become a star,” Luening told the New York Times. “I wanted to be a loyal servant of the art of music.”
Luening continued to compose well into his nineties. At a New York concert in his honor in 1995, musicians performed his recent Divertimento for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. He died in New York on September 2, 1996. In 2000, Columbia University held an all-Luening centennial concert to honor the composer. The CRI label released two new Luening recordings in 2000 and 2001.
A Tribute to Otto Luening, Composers Recordings Inc., 1993.
Electronic Music (includes Fantasy in Space), Composers Recordings Inc., 1993.
Otto Luening: No Jerusalem But This/Divertimento, Composers Recordings Inc., 1993.
Autumn Rhythms, Composers Recordings Inc., 1996.
Otto Luening: Trio, Composers Recordings Inc., 1996.
She Walks in Beauty: Soprano Danielle Woerner Sings Chamber Music and Songs of Otto Luening and Robert Starer, Parnassus Records, 1999.
Songs of Otto Luening, Composers Recordings Inc., 2000.
Chords at Night: The Rare Piano Music of Otto Luening, Composers Recordings Inc., 2001.
Guardian (London), September 13, 1996, p. 16.
Independent (London), September 20, 1996, p. 16.
New York Times, June 15, 1980, sec. 2, p. 27; September 5, 1996, p. D21; May 31, 2000, p. E3.
Times (London), September 24, 1996.
“Biography: Otto Luening,” New Music Box, http://www.newmusicbox.org/first-person/nov99/Ottoluening.html (February 2, 2002).