John Harbison

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John Harris Harbison (born December 20, 1938) is an American composer, known for his symphonies, operas, and large choral works.



John Harris Harbison was born on December 20, 1938, in Orange, New Jersey, to the historian Elmore Harris Harbison and Janet German Harbison. The Harbisons were a musical family; Elmore had studied composition in his youth and Janet wrote songs. [1] Harbison's sisters Helen and Margaret were musicians as well. He won the prestigious BMI Foundation's Student Composer Awards for composition at the age of 16 in 1954. He studied music at Harvard University (BA 1960), where he sang with the Harvard Glee Club, and later at the Berlin Musikhochschule and at Princeton (MFA 1963). He is an Institute Professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a former student of Walter Piston and Roger Sessions. His works include several symphonies, string quartets, and concerti for violin, viola, and double bass.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1987 for The Flight into Egypt , and in 1989 he received a $305,000 MacArthur Fellowship. [2] In 1998 he was awarded the 4th Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities. [3] He was awarded the Harvard Arts Medal in 2000. [4] In 2006 a recording of his Mottetti di Montale was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Small Ensemble Performance category.

The Metropolitan Opera commissioned Harbison's The Great Gatsby to celebrate James Levine's 25th anniversary with the company. The opera premiered on December 20, 1999, conducted by Levine and starring Jerry Hadley, Dawn Upshaw, Susan Graham, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Mark Baker, Dwayne Croft, and Richard Paul Fink.

In 1991, Harbison was the music director of the Ojai Music Festival in conjunction with Peter Maxwell Davies.

Harbison was jointly commissioned by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue to write a piece for the Papal Concert of Reconciliation. The event was co-officiated by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rav Elio Toaff, the Imam of the Mosque of Rome, Abdulawahab Hussein Gomaa, and Pope John Paul II. Abraham, a six-minute composition for brass and antiphonal choirs, had its world premiere on January 17, 2004, performed by members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and a choir made up of members of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, the London Philharmonic Choir, the Krakow Philharmonic Choir, and the Ankara Polyphonic Choir, under the baton of Sir Gilbert Levine.

Harbison was previously the principal guest conductor for Emmanuel Music in Boston; after founding director Craig Smith's death in 2007, Harbison was named Acting Artistic Director.

When asked in 1990 for his "artistic credo", Harbison replied: "to make each piece different from the others, to find clear, fresh large designs, to reinvent traditions".[ This quote needs a citation ]

He is married to violinist Rose Mary Harbison (née Pederson).

Discography (incomplete)

  1. I. It's True, I Went to the Market
  2. II. All I Was Doing Was Breathing
  3. III. Why Mira Can't Go Back to Her Old House
  4. IV. Where Did You Go?
  5. V. The Clouds
  6. VI. Don't Go, Don't Go
  7. Variations i–v
  8. Variations vi–x
  9. Variations xi–xv
  10. Finale and Epilogue
  1. The Flight into Egypt , text from the King James translation of the story of the Flight into Egypt in the Gospel of Matthew
  2. The Natural World: Prelude
  3. Where We Must Look for Help, text from Robert Bly
  4. On the Road Home, text from Wallace Stevens
  5. Milkweed, text from James Wright
  6. Concerto for Double Brass Choir and Orchestra: I. Invention on a Motif: Tempo giusto
  7. II. Invention on a Chord: Cantabile
  8. III. Invention on a Cadence: Molto allegro
  1. Due Libri dei Mottetti di Montale
  2. Snow Country
  3. Chorale Cantata
  4. Concerto for Oboe, Clarinet, and Strings
  1. Ulysses' Bow ballet performed by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conducted by André Previn
  2. Samuel Chapter performed by Susan Larson (soprano) and conducted by John Harbison





External video
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg John Harbison (on his Symphony No. 1), March 22, 1984, 4:20, Boston TV Digital Archive [5]





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  1. "Janet G. H. Penfield". Obituaries. Town Topics . LVII (4). Princeton. January 28, 2004.
  2. Harbison wins MacArthur fellowship
  3. The Heinz Awards, John Harbison profile
  4. "History of the Harvard Arts Medal". Harvard University Office for the Arts. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  5. "Ten O'Clock News; John Harbison", 1984-03-22, 4:20, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 23, 2016.

Further reading