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‘He was full of humor, and he was brilliant’: World-renowned composer Dominick Argento remembered

The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, University of Minnesota professor emeritus and longtime Minneapolis resident died Wednesday at 91.

Dominick Argento
Dominick Argento speaking in 2014 about the premiere at the Ordway Center by Minnesota Opera of his revision of “The Dream of Valentino.” Argento thought the production at the Kennedy Center in 1994 was ill-conceived.
Photo by Noorah Bawazir for the Minnesota Opera

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, University of Minnesota professor emeritus and longtime Minneapolis resident Dominick Argento has died. The news broke softly, on a warm personal note, in an article written by his nephew, Mike Argento, and published Thursday morning in the York (Pennsylvania) Daily Record.

Argento died Wednesday in Minneapolis. He was 91.

Argento was the son of Sicilian immigrants who settled in York. He was born in 1927, learned to play the accordion as a child and spent hours in the local library. He learned harmony and orchestration from library books and started piano lessons at 16. After graduating from York High School, Argento was drafted into the Army and worked as a cryptographer in East Africa. He went to Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore on the G.I. bill, earned his bachelor’s degree, spent a life-changing year in Florence on a Fulbright and returned to Peabody for his master’s.

At Peabody, Argento met a young soprano named Carolyn Bailey, and they married in 1954. She would premiere many of his works. Argento received his Ph.D. in 1957 from the Eastman School of Music in New York. His opera, “The Boor,” based on the play by Chekhov, was published that year by Boosey & Hawkes, which would be Argento’s publisher for the rest of his life.

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In 1958, Argento joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota, later claiming it was the only job offer he got. He would teach at the School of Music until 1997, influencing countless students including VocalEssence founder Philip Brunelle, Grammy-winning composers and American Composers Forum co-founders Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus, and award-winning composer David Evan Thomas.

Lauded, beloved and celebrated

The same year Argento and Bailey moved to Minneapolis, Argento co-founded the Center Opera Company, which later became the Minnesota Opera, and composed its inaugural opera, “The Masque of Angels.” He would be sought after, lauded, beloved and celebrated in his new home. Over time, the Minnesota Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Schubert Club, the Guthrie, the Dale Warland Singers and VocalEssence all commissioned him to write new music for them.

Argento, Jette
Photo by R. Kingsley Elder
Composer Dominick Argento working with soprano Maria Jette during a rehearsal with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra in 2014.
Argento was a prolific and internationally prominent composer. He wrote 13 operas, a ballet, instrumental music, vocal and choral music, and works for orchestras and ensembles of all sizes, with or without voice(s) and solo instrument(s). He set prose and poetry to music, drawing texts from Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James, Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, Thoreau, the diaries of polar explorer S.A. Andrée, letters by composers including Chopin, Bach and Mozart, and the writings of Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners.

In 1975, Argento won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his song cycle “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.” In 2004, his “Casa Guidi,” based on letters by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, performed by the Minnesota Orchestra with Frederica von Stade, won the Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979 and had a lifetime appointment as the Minnesota Orchestra’s composer laureate, the first such appointment in the nation. In 1993, he won the George Peabody Medal for his exceptional contributions to music in America.

‘There were no shortcuts with Dominick’

Philip Brunelle, who’s celebrating his 50th year as organist and choirmaster at Plymouth Congregational Church, first met Argento when he took his class in opera history. “He was full of humor, and he was brilliant,” Brunelle said Thursday afternoon. “There were no shortcuts with Dominick. Everything with him had to be fully correct. I learned from him that in all that we do, we really have to try to make it the most perfect we possibly can, in performance, in recording, in whatever we’re doing.”

“Masque,” “Waterbird Talk,” “The Aspern Papers” and the premiere of “The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe” were among the Argento operas Brunelle conducted over the years. “There wasn’t a dud in the group,” he said. “And then there were the song cycles. It was always a joy and a thrill to discover him. He was such a brain, but his music was not brainy. Some of his pieces were 12-tone music, but he never wanted it to sound angular and academic, and it never did. He would say, ‘You can find ways to make 12-tone music romantic.’”

Philip Brunelle, Dominick Argento, Maria Jette
Courtesy of Maria Jette
VocalEssence founder Philip Brunelle, Dominick Argento and soprano Maria Jette shown at a party in 2009.
What will Brunelle miss most about him? “That there won’t be any other Argento pieces coming. On a social level, we’ll miss our conversations with him. My wife, Carolyn, and I tried in these last few years to go and see him as often as we could, just to visit and talk. He continued to be so well-read, fascinated by politics and a huge Vikings fan.”

‘One Damned Fine Symphony Orchestra’

The Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra under William Schrickel and the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis led by Cary John Franklin both have performed many of Argento’s works over the years, including compositions from the early days. Soon after the news got out about Argento’s death, we heard from Jon Lewis, executive director of the MSO. “Dominick was our composer laureate, and we play his music a lot,” Lewis wrote in an email. “He gave us the nickname ‘One Damned Fine Symphony Orchestra,’ and who am I to argue with Dominick Argento?”

Soprano Maria Jette, who first met Argento and his wife “in perhaps 1988,” will sing his “Three Meditations for Soprano” in San Luis Obispo, California, next Saturday. “I tricked him into writing an accompanied setting of Whitman’s Last Invocation for me, and that turned into ‘Three Meditations for Soprano,’” Jette told us by email Thursday.

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“He had a VERY wicked wit, and loved to host parties, and loved Negronis and Manhattans. He had an astonishing memory and a million great stories. He loved all things Italian and was 100 percent Sicilian.”

What is it like to sing his music? “Not easy – difficult intervals. But once you learned the notes, they started to seem inevitable. … He has a unique harmonic stamp. Suddenly you hear the Argento signature, and it can’t be anyone else.”

Jette last saw Argento on Saturday, four days before he died. “He’d been rejecting the idea of visitors, but it felt like this hospital/rehab stint was different from previous ones. I insisted on a quick visit, which turned into two hours. … I loved him!”