Beside operas and choral and orchestral works, Minnesota composer Dominick Argento is known internationally for art songs based on letters and diaries. The composer talked about his literary and musical interests in a recent interview.
Q: Early in your career, you wrote songs and choral pieces based on poems by authors from Catullus, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth to E.E. Cummings and Wallace Stevens. Recently you’ve found inspiration in texts by Henry James, Thoreau, Herman Melville, Mark Twain and even Edgar Allan Poe. Why have your literary interests shifted?
A: I’ve been doing less and less poetry as time goes on. I’m just more attracted to memoir and straight-out prose. Poetry has a very public face, and poets — despite the personal nature of their words — are aware that they’re addressing thousands. Whereas writers of letters think they’re dealing with a very closed condition and not addressing the hoi polloi.
Q: Are you a prolific letter writer yourself?
A: No. The advent of e-mail has sort of destroyed that. In an e-mail you’re not 100 percent assured of privacy, as Hillary [Clinton] is finding out. When I was in Italy on my Fulbright fellowship in the early 1950s I used to write letters to my first composition teacher, Hugo Weisgall, who dubbed me the last of the great letter writers.
In those days, when I was engaged to Carolyn [Bailey, his wife, who died in 2006], I’d write letters every day, sometimes 10 to 12 pages. It was for me a kind of unloading. A day in Italy then left you so charged up and stimulated with ideas that if you didn’t write them down you would overflow. Letters were a way of combing it out and putting life into some sort of order.
Q: You grew up in York, Pa., and have lived most of your adult life in Minnesota. Your parents were Sicilian immigrants, and Italy, especially Florence, is dear to your heart. How do you piece that together?
A: I’m writing a memoir that begins at age 20 or 21, but I have a lot I want to talk about from my childhood. I’m only a third of the way through at this point.
Q: As a composer, you seem unusually well tuned to the spoken word. Why?
A: All my life I’ve been looking for words I could put to music. When I was teaching at the University of Minnesota, on Saturday mornings I’d haunt the stacks at Walter Library. Now I can do that on my computer. I’m still on the lookout for texts and for real words from real life.
Q: Usually you write music for other people’s words, but in your 1980 piece “The Andrée Expedition,” about Swedish balloonist Salomon Andrée’s 1897 attempt to fly a hydrogen balloon to the North Pole, you invent dialogue for a real person who left no record of his thoughts. Why?
A: There has been controversy over whether Andrée knew that the whole expedition was doomed but just went ahead to do something noble for Sweden. The opportunity was to have the engineer, Frænkel, the man who didn’t write anything, say it on behalf of Andrée and himself. I have him sing about the third explorer, Strindberg, who fancies himself a latter-day Don Quixote, and was in it for the glory. You can get a glimpse of what Frænkel might have been thinking from what the others wrote. That gave me an opportunity to put my own personal slant on the whole thing.