Dominick Argento was born on October 27, 1927. He is the son of Sicilian immigrants and grew up in York, Pennsylvania. After his high school graduation, he was drafted into the Army and spent some time as a cryptographer. Afterwards, using funding from the G.I. Bill, he began studying piano performance at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and then changed to composition.
He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Peabody and was also the music director of Weisgall’s Hilltop Musical Company. Hilltop’s stage director was writer John Olon-Scrymgeour, with who Argento would later collaborate with for multiple operas. Argento continued graduate studies and received his Ph.D.
from the Eastman School of Music. Argento is most known for his lyrical operas and choral music. As a student in the 1950s, Argento constantly moved between the United States or Italy.
His music is greatly influenced both by his instructors in the United States and his personal attachment to Italy. He has been a professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and he was one of the founders of the Center Opera Company, now Minnesota Opera. In 1975, Argento also won the Pulitzer Prize for his song cycle “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf”.
He has written many different songs and operas throughout his lifetime, including “I Hate and I Love”, “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf”, and “A Nation of Cowslips”. Dominick Argento’s “I Hate and I Love” is a modern classic composed in 1982. The average duration of this piece is sixteen minutes and 42 seconds written in English for SATB. I chose this piece because of the percussion accompaniment. One doesn’t normally see a strong percussion background to a more soothing and mellow voice part. This is a song cycle written for chorus and percussion.
It was specifically written for the tenth anniversary of the Dale Warland Singers which is one of the major professional choruses in the United States. This song is based on the poetry of the Gaius Valerius Catullus, a Latin poet, from which he used his own English translation. Catallus was one of the first love poets, and about 116 poems of his still survive today. Around 25 of these poems were written for a high-class woman by the name of Lesbia. Many scholars say that Lesbia was actually a married woman named Clodia, who was about 10 years older than Argento. Much of his poetry has been transmitted over 21 centuries because of its greatness and power. When Argento composed his song, “I Hate and I Love”, he specifically chose to accompany his piece purely with percussion instruments, unlike many other composers. But, he does not use the percussion solely for rhythmic and sound purposes; he uses only percussion and human sounds because it is a sound more “known to the ancients”.
There are eight parts to this song cycle, including “I Hate and I Love”, “Let us Live, My Clodia, and Let us Love”, “Greetings, Miss, With Nose not Small”, “My Woman says she Will be No One’s”, “Was it a Lioness from the Mountains of Libya”, “You Promise me, my Dearest Life”, “Wretched Catallus, Put an End to this Madness”, and “I Hate and I Love” once more. Argento’s next piece, “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf”, is a classical modern song written in the 1970’s. I chose this piece because of the title. It seemed unique to me to compose a song based off the diaries of another. This song cycle is written in English and was originally written as a solo. Argento wrote this piece for the English mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.
It is around 35 minutes long and has eight different parts to the song. This piece is based on the diaries of the writer, Virginia Woolf. Argento’s original intention was to simply use excerpts from the diary as basis for his cycle, but after reading her newer diaries, he found them to be richer in musical opportunities. Because of the highly confessional nature of her diaries, they illuminate Woolf’s inner thoughts more than her literary works, such as novels. Argento does not wish to depict Woolf’s own personality in his songs, but rather to set each song based on the emotional content of the text alone. Argento chose to accompany this piece with piano to dictate the structure and mood.
As stated before, this song consists of eight different parts, including “The Diary”, “Anxiety”, “Fancy”, “Hardy’s Funeral”, “Rome”, “War”, “Parents”, and “Last Entry”. All of these movements are based on different parts of Woolf’s diaries that Argento chose to expand upon. Lastly, “A Nation of Cowslips”, is another modern classic composed in 1968. It endures for around 18 minutes and is written for a chorus. I again chose this piece because of the title.
Before I read the background information on this piece, I was very intrigued by the word choice of “cowslips” in a chorale piece. As implied from my paragraph about “I Hate and I Love”, Argento was very interested in old, classic poems of the twentieth century and earlier. He particularly enjoyed the types of poems that originated from letters. Argento was inspired to write this song by seven poems written by John Keats in the early nineteenth century. When Keats had a celebration in honor of his poetry in England and Scotland, he described the locations as “a nation of cowslips.
” Similar to Keats, Argento wrote these songs very spontaneously. Argento first began his composition of this particular song on a sunny afternoon in his Italian-style garden. While his wife was inside rehearsing her role of Pamina in Mozart’s Magic Flute, Argento’s creative juices started to flow.
He began writing and ended with brilliant composition in 1968. Dominick Argento is an extremely famous composer, known to many chorale professionals around the globe. Besides from the three chorale pieces I have chosen to elaborate on, he has written several more pieces including multiple operas.
He is an esteemed professional with many good qualities. The background of his pieces, such as ancient poetry and writing, really make a chorale professional dive deeper into the true meaning of what he/she may be singing. Many of Argento’s pieces do not sound similar because they are all written from extremely differing backgrounds. But, the one similarity between his many compositions is tendency to add spontaneity and dissonant tones throughout his pieces.
Dominick Argento is a composer with compositions never to be forgotten.