On a sunny afternoon in September 2017, I pulled up to Dominick Argento’s Minneapolis home on tony Mount Curve Avenue. I was scheduled to interview the great composer for the occasion of his 90th birthday.
Fourteen operas. One Pulitzer Prize. One Grammy. One Guggenheim fellowship. Argento is musical royalty, especially here in Minnesota.
I confess, I was a little nervous as I double-checked my voice recorder that day. A recent transplant from Ireland, I had yet to meet the celebrated composer. I heard he could be a little irritable.
Much to my relief, our conversation proved wide-ranging and affable. And poignant, too. At one point, Argento mentioned how much he missed writing music since hearing loss forced him to stop composing in 2014. “I really feel I’ve gotten to the point where I know how to write,” he said. “I feel I’m wasting my days.”
Memories of that hour spent with Argento came flooding back when news arrived of the composer’s death on Feb. 20.
Then came the inevitable questions a critic fields when a celebrated composer passes: What are his best works? Where does he sit among the pantheon of American classical artists?
Those questions are difficult to answer in the immediate aftermath of Argento’s death. While he racked up awards and other accolades, his music certainly fell out of favor in recent decades. It’s difficult to find performances of his operas in America these days. Even his magnificent choral works struggle to find exposure outside Minnesota. I suspect it will take decades to form a settled assessment of his musical legacy.
What’s immediately clear, though, is that Argento was a musical maverick, a fiercely individual freethinker in the doughty American tradition of Charles Ives or Virgil Thomson. At a moment when many composers favored complexity and dissonance — Argento called it “Schoenberg’s little revolution” — the accomplished Minnesotan never wavered in his belief that music was meant for audiences to enjoy. He believed music should make an immediate human connection.
‘He almost idolized Britten’
Composer David Evan Thomas was one of Argento’s students at the University of Minnesota. Thomas even served as Argento’s teaching assistant for three years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Although Argento studied with Italian modernist Luigi Dallapiccola, Thomas watched his teacher reject the sort of cerebral, complex music that grew increasingly fashionable over the 20th century.
That’s not to say Argento’s music is simple, Thomas added. “If you look at a score, you are amazed at the visual complexity. But he was not about complicated expression. He was always trying to get me to choose simplicity.”
Soprano Maria Jette worked closely with Argento for more than three decades. She, too, appreciated the emotional directness heard in Argento’s music. “Six Elizabethan Songs” is “probably his most popular work,” she said, referring to an early song cycle first published in 1958. “They’re just delicious and sweet and beautiful.”
As a composition teacher, Argento championed the advanced techniques of serialism — using a row of 12 notes to compose, without reference to a particular key center or traditional harmonies. The technique is certainly present in Argento’s music, Jette explained. But that never meant the compositions sounded academic. “Dominick’s songs are just so colorful.”
Re-listening to a piece such as “Valentino Dances” — a suite of orchestral music from Argento’s 1994 opera “The Dream of Valentino” — you immediately hear the expressive colors Jette is talking about. Shimmering Hollywood strings mix with tingling percussion, laced with the tart contributions of an accordion. The piece is irresistibly exuberant.
That came partly from the late romantic composers Argento liked listening to.
“Dominick identified much more strongly with the early modern composers than with the later ones,” Thomas said. “Strauss, Mahler, Rachmaninoff. He loved Elgar. He almost idolized Britten.”
All of those composers wrote richly expressive music, unafraid to convey emotion. And Argento followed their lead, becoming one of the last — if not the very last — among American composers adhering to romantic notions that music should be emotional, entertaining and accessible to all.
Falling in love
Argento fell in love with the human voice — and with a particular singer. He met soprano Carolyn Bailey at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in the 1950s. She became his wife and constant collaborator until her death in 2006. And she helped inspire a wealth of operas, songs and choral works over Argento’s six-decade career.
“The voice is at the heart of everything Dominick wrote,” Thomas observed. “The fact that a voice is connected to a human being and an emotion was hugely important to him. ”
Minnesota was another big influence when it came to vocal music. Argento relished writing for the opulent textures of a large orchestra, Thomas said. But then the Pennsylvania-born Argento landed a job at the University of Minnesota in 1958. Here, he discovered a wealth of excellent choirs — the Dale Warland Singers, Philip Brunelle’s VocalEssence. That inspired him to create “choral music unlike any ever written,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ favorites include “Walden Pond” (1996), “I Hate and I Love” (1981) and “Peter Quince at the Clavier” (1979). These aren’t just song cycles, he said. “They’re choral symphonies” that combine instrumental textures with the voice.
Argento’s music could be funny, too. For example, his capriccio for clarinet and orchestra “Rossini in Paris” features a burbling clarinet, playfully leaping about in the spirit of Rossini’s comic operas.
That sense of humor surfaced in private conversation, too. Argento was “funnier than hell,” Jette recalled. “And he could be fairly savage about people he didn’t like.”
Yes, that prickliness carried over into Argento’s music career. He could be harsh at rehearsals, Jette said. Thomas confessed to feeling “tremulous” before lessons for fear that his latest composition would not find favor.
Some of that came through in my interview with Argento. The warm, congenial burr of conversation was occasionally spiked by mischievous shots of irony. He was piqued that relatively few performances of his music were scheduled to mark his 90th birthday. He bemoaned the “dumbing down” of symphony orchestra programs with movie nights and questionable crossover projects.
Then again, Argento also offered generous counsel for young composers on the brink of their careers.
“After you get your degree, do what a dentist does,” he said. “Look for a community that needs you.”
Argento found a community that needed him. In turn, Minnesota’s people, places and artists shaped his music.
It’s a shame it isn’t played more often, especially by the state’s flagship music organizations. A few revivals of his operas would be nice. That would certainly help solidify his reputation in the American musical canon.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.