Dominick Argento’s music made its way to grand stages in New York and Washington, D.C. But oftentimes, Minnesota audiences heard it first.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning song cycle “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf”? First staged at Orchestra Hall. The opera “Postcard From Morocco”? Commissioned by what is now the Minnesota Opera.
“He embraced Minnesota and became one of the gems, one of the state treasures,” said Vern Sutton, the legendary tenor. “And he was proud of having spent his career here.”
Argento, a composer who earned both worldwide acclaim and the unofficial title of dean of Minnesota music, died Wednesday in Minneapolis, where he had lived for six decades. He was 91.
“He had an innate sense of what the voice could do,” said Philip Brunelle, artistic director of the Minneapolis choral organization VocalEssence. “And then he combined that with a great sense of orchestra; he knew how to write for instruments. The great majority of composers can do one or the other but not both. And he could do both.”
“Which is why he is regarded as one of the great American opera composers of all time,” Brunelle said.
Known for his romantic, complex music, Argento wrote a dozen operas, a handful of major song cycles and numerous choral works, making him one of the most prolific and prominent American composers of the past century.
He did so while living in Minnesota at a time when most major composers were based on the East or West coasts. As a University of Minnesota faculty member from 1958 to 1997, he taught composition, mentoring generations of young artists who regarded him as a friendly, witty legend.
“We [in Minnesota] are known now for composition, and known nationally and internationally for choral music,” said Dale Warland, one such student-turned-composer. “He had a lot to do with inspiring that.”
He fell for a soprano
Argento was born in York, Pa., to Sicilian immigrants who ran a small inn and restaurant. He listened to classical music, read biographies of composers and, after serving in the Army, studied at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore on the G.I. Bill, then at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
He planned to write symphonies until he fell in love with a soprano: Carolyn Bailey.
“She was the ‘hot’ soprano at Eastman who sang many of my works,” he once said. “I was just another composer.”
Together, they traveled to Italy, where he worked with composer Luigi Dallapiccola. They adored Florence, making annual pilgrimages there.
The city would serve as the setting for “Casa Guidi,” a song cycle that won a 2004 Grammy for a recording by soprano Frederica von Stade with the Minnesota Orchestra. Argento took the text from letters that 19th-century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote after moving there with her husband.
The five songs, wrote Minnesota Orchestra annotator Mary Ann Feldman, are “full of appealing melodies embedded in warm harmonies,” inviting listeners into the Brownings’, and perhaps the Argentos’ own, loving domesticity.
Many of his works drew on the diaries and letters of writers and artists, including “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf,” a duet for voice and piano, commissioned by St. Paul’s Schubert Club, which won the Pulitzer for music in 1975.
Writing music for prose is “maybe” even harder than composing it for poetry, he said in a 2016 Star Tribune interview. “But it’s a challenge I’ve enjoyed. There are more subtleties in letters and memoirs. And I think music is beautifully suited to deal with the more subtle and rarefied emotions.”
Saturday mornings at the University of Minnesota, he would “haunt the stacks at Walker Library” in search of inspirational writings.
Generous and kind
It was the university that brought him to Minnesota — the only job offer he got, Argento told the Star Tribune in 2017. But he came to love the Twin Cities, especially its politics and its hunger for art. He also cheered the Vikings, watching games wearing a “Football is life” sweatshirt.
“For me, it’s been a love affair with my community here,” he once said. “I do think of myself as a Minnesota composer.”
He wrote for small and major choirs, youth orchestras and opera companies. “I think I’ve written for every organization in this town except the PTA,” he said. One was the Center Opera Company, then based at Walker Art Center, which eventually became the Minnesota Opera. The composer helped found it.
Singer and opera director Sutton premiered several pieces Argento wrote for the company with the tenor’s range and abilities in mind. Sutton credited such works as “Letters from Composers” with helping to build his career.
“He had a way of writing music that was extremely intellectual, if you wanted to analyze it,” said Sutton, now 81. “But it was still extremely emotional.”
In person, Argento was emotional and kind, guiding his students in professional and personal ways, Sutton added. Over their time at the U, Sutton was Argento’s student, colleague and then boss. Argento also became “a very important part of my family,” Sutton said. Without him, “I’d be a completely different person, I’d be a completely different artist.”
Without his wife and muse, Argento would have been a very different composer, friends and colleagues said. Carolyn called out ideas from the other room, wrote notes in his margins. “Like ‘too high’ or ‘where would they breathe?’ ” he said in 2009. “It was a playful game that became a lesson to me.”
When she died in 2006, at 75, he believed he’d never compose again. But the Washington National Cathedral needed a commission to celebrate its centennial.
Brunelle helped persuade the composer to do it. “Evensong: Of Love and Angels” premiered in 2008 and was performed in Minneapolis in 2009 by VocalEssence. Carolyn is “almost a living presence in ‘Evensong,’ ” critic Michael Anthony wrote in the Star Tribune, “which must count as one of her husband’s most lyrical and radiant compositions.”
His final work illuminated text from a dear friend, Pat Solstad. She said Wednesday that she first got to know Argento at the University of Minnesota, when “the girls in the office … all thought he was a real peach.” After his wife died, Solstad stopped by Argento’s home every Saturday to help and to chat.
She had been taking poetry classes and would bring him snippets she was writing. “Over a glass of wine, we’d look at them,” said Solstad, of Woodbury.
He liked one poem in particular: “Autumn.” He pushed her to write another for winter, then spring. When a vocal group reached out, looking for a new Argento piece, turning “Seasons” into a choral work seemed natural. It was “thrilling” to have the composer, long inspired by literary greats, make her words musical, Solstad said. Soon, they had created a 12-minute piece together.
“He wanted me to keep writing, and I wanted him to keep writing music,” Solstad said. “So we were both pushing one another for our own selfish reasons.”