Dominick Argento, 91, Celebrated America Composer of Lyric Opera, has Died
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21 February 2019

Dominick Argento, 91, Celebrated American Composer of Lyric Operas and Songs, has Died

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Composer Argento in 2001  
Photo by Joel Larson


DOMINICK ARGENTO generated a large and varied output of predominantly vocal music during his long creative life. In addition to his fourteen operas, he composed song cycles, choral pieces and musical monodramas, establishing himself as one of the most adept practitioners of text-setting within his generation of American composers. Though his polystylistic idiom ranges from opulent Romanticism to acerbic dissonance, his melodic lines are unfailingly well suited both to the voice and to the straightforward delivery of the words. “The composers I admire, I think, wrote music to touch the listener,” he said. “There’s no other reason for me.”

Born in Pennsylvania to Sicilian immigrant parents, Argento entered the Peabody Conservatory as a piano major but was quickly nudged toward composition by Nicolas Nabokov (cousin to Vladimir), who became Argento’s principal teacher. After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Peabody, Argento completed his doctorate at the Eastman School of Music. While at Peabody, Argento met the gifted young soprano Carolyn Bailey. Although she was from Argento’s hometown of York, Pennsylvania, they didn’t meet until Argento needed a soprano to perform his Songs about Spring, and a mutual friend recommended Bailey. She gave the premiere of the cycle, and the two were married three years later. A Guggenheim fellowship later took Argento to Florence, which became a beloved second home for the couple.

In 1958, Argento and Bailey moved to Minneapolis, where he had accepted a teaching position at the University of Minnesota. He soon found himself much sought after as a composer in his new home and busy with commissions from the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Guthrie Theatre and the Dale Warland Singers. With writer John Olon-Scrymgeour, a colleague from his Peabody years, Argento founded the Center Opera Company in 1963 and composed the one-act opera The Masque of Angels in honor of the occasion. (“Gloria,” an extract from this work, is popular among choruses.) In 1971, Center Opera commissioned Postcard from Morocco, an absurdist, plotless pastiche that went on to become one of his biggest successes and his most frequently performed opera. Center Opera Company later became Minnesota Opera, home to several subsequent Argento world premieres, including The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe (1976) and Casanova’s Homecoming (1984). The latter, for which Argento wrote his own libretto, received a production at New York City Opera later the same year, a highly successful outing that was described by Donal Henahan of The New York Times as “a thoroughgoing delight… a witty theater piece that should go on charming audiences for many years.” 

The New York Casanova production was also notable for its use of projected titles—the first time in New York that an opera in English used English captions. Argento found the triumph of Casanova particularly gratifying, because his previous City Opera outing, Miss Havisham’s Fire (1979), had been received poorly. (Certain that the opera contained the best music he’d ever written, he later created a revised and much shorter version of Miss Havisham that was a hit at its Opera Theatre of Saint Louis premiere in 2001.)

In 1988, Dallas Opera gave the world premiere of Argento’s Aspern Papers, based on Henry James’s novella. The premiere, starring Elisabeth Söderström, Frederica von Stade, Neil Rosenshein and Richard Stilwell, was telecast on PBS’s Great Performances


Among Argento’s song cycles, Six Elizabethan Songs and From the Diary of Virginia Woolf have proved especially popular among recitalists, the latter earning him a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, for whom he wrote the Virginia Woolf cycle, said of the work, “Dominick’s settings are an absolute gift for the singer who believes words and music are equally important to the whole.” The Woolf cycle is emblematic of Argento’s output in that its texts are dramatic prose passages rather than poetry, and the musical styles vary widely but ultimately stay anchored within tonality. The cycle makes discreet use of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system but “bears little resemblance to its inventor’s usage,” as Argento proudly attested in his engaging book, Catalogue Raisonné as Memoir: A Composer’s Life. “Parents,” seventh in the eight-song cycle, is as melodically poignant and lovely as anything in the twentieth-century American art-song repertory.

In addition to his Pulitzer Prize, Argento won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Frederica von Stade’s recording of his song cycle Casa Guidi with the Minnesota Orchestra. Argento was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979 and received the George Peabody Medal in 1993.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

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