Ernst Bacon

1898 - 1990

American

Summary

Throughout his long career, Ernst Bacon's chief aim as a composer was to
express the spirit of America in music as Whitman, Emerson, Melville,
and others did in literature. He was deeply immersed in our country's
history and folklore, as well as its indigenous music; and the poetry,
folk songs, jazz rhythms and geography of America as well as the
landscape itself, which he hiked, climbed, and also painted -- all of
these elements found their way into his music.

Those who influenced Bacon included Carl Sandburg, Thornton Wilder, and
Roland Hayes. Bacon's music expresses the common touch and humor of
Sandburg; the profound simplicity of Wilder; and the melodic beauty that
Roland Hayes expressed so movingly in his singing. As with Schubert, a
large body of more than 250 art songs is the heart of an oeuvre that
also includes numerous chamber, orchestral, and choral works, as well as
descriptive pieces for piano.

The Ernst Bacon Society has recently announced a program of grants to
underwrite portions of the rental fees for performances of orchestral
works by Ernst Bacon. For more information, including grant guidelines
and details on how to apply, please click here.

Biography

Ernst Bacon was one of that pioneering generation of composers, along
with Thomson, Copland, Harris, and others, who found a voice for
American music. He was born in Chicago on May 26, 1898; his Austrian
mother gave him a love of song and an early start on the piano.
Although his varied career included appearances as pianist and
conductor, along with teaching and directing positions, his deepest
preoccupation was always composing. His musical awards included a
Pulitzer Fellowship in 1932 for his Symphony in D Minor, and three
Guggenheim Fellowships.

As a composer, Bacon belonged to no "school” and followed no fads. He
was largely self-taught in composition, except for two years study with
Karl Weigl in Vienna. While there, he experienced the depression of
post-war Europe first hand, and concluded that the European avant-garde
movement, reflecting the pessimism of that era and locale, was not
appropriate to America. Returning to Chicago, he set out to write music
that expressed the vitality and affirmation of our own country.

At the age of nineteen, while majoring in mathematics at Northwestern
University, Bacon published a complex treatise exploring all possible
harmonies. However, when he began to compose music in his twenties, he
rejected a cerebral approach, taking the position that music is an art,
not a science. He felt that its source should be intuitive and
imaginative, rather than abstract and analytical.

From his first job as opera coach at the Eastman School in the early
’20s, he went on to receive a Masters Degree from the University of
California at Berkeley and to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of
Music under Ernest Bloch. During the ’30s he was Director of the WPA
Federal Music Project and Orchestra in San Francisco and founded the
Carmel Bach Festival. From 1938-45 he headed the School of Music at
Converse College in Spartanburg, SC, where he established the New
Spartanburg Music Festival. At Syracuse University, he was Director of
the School of Music from 1945-47 and composer-in-residence and professor
of piano until his retirement in 1963.

In 1964 he returned to the West, settling in the small town of Orinda,
CA, east of the Berkeley hills. Here, as everywhere else, he drew his
greatest inspiration from nature, jotting down notes as he explored
local trails. His fertile imagination and constant creative efforts
left little time for self-promotion, but although nearly blind in old
age, he continued to compose until the very end of his 91 years.

Throughout his long career, Ernst Bacon's chief aim as a composer was to
express the spirit of America in music as Whitman, Emerson, Melville,
and others did in literature. He was deeply immersed in our country's
history and folklore, as well as its indigenous music; and the poetry,
folk songs, jazz rhythms and geography of America as well as the
landscape itself, which he hiked, climbed, and also painted -- all of
these elements found their way into his music.

Those who influenced Bacon included Carl Sandburg, Thornton Wilder, and
Roland Hayes. Bacon's music expresses the common touch and humor of
Sandburg; the profound simplicity of Wilder; and the melodic beauty that
Roland Hayes expressed so movingly in his singing. As with Schubert, a
large body of more than 250 art songs is the heart of an oeuvre that
also includes numerous chamber, orchestral, and choral works, as well as
descriptive pieces for piano.

The Ernst Bacon Society has recently announced a program of grants to
underwrite portions of the rental fees for performances of orchestral
works by Ernst Bacon. For more information, including grant guidelines
and details on how to apply, please click here.

News

Photos