Repertory Archive

William Bolcom


William (Elden) Bolcom was born in Seattle, Washington in 1938. He is a composer, pianist, and author. He began composition studies with John Verall at an early age and continued with Darius Milhaud at Mills College, and with Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen in Paris. After a period of work with Leland Smith at Stanford University, he taught at the University of Washington and Queens College, CUNY. While in New York, Bolcom developed the technique and style of playing ragtime that, through concerts and recordings, placed him in the forefront of the ragtime revival; he has also composed original rags, among them The Graceful Ghost, which was used by Twyla Tharp in The Raggedy Dances (1972). From 1968 to 1970, he was composer-in-residence at the Yale University Drama School and the New York University School of the Arts.

In 1971, Bolcom met the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, whom he married in 1975 and with whom he began to develop programs on the history of the American popular song. Their recitals and recordings of songs by Henry Russell, Henry Clay work, and others have done much to arouse interest in parlor and music-hall songs of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bolcom has also made solo albums of music by Gershwin, Milhaud, and himself. In 1973, he took a position at the University of Michigan, where he became associate professor of composition in 1977. With Robert Kimball, he wrote the book Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake (1973); he also edited the collected writings of Rochberg, The Aesthetics of Survival: a Composer’s View of 20th-century Music (1984).

Bolcom’s intent to break down artificial distinctions between popular and serious music is realized in his own compositions, in which widely differing styles are often juxtaposed within the same work. An intensely dramatic atonality is contrasted with the song styles of World War I (as in the cabaret opera Dynamite Tonight), ragtime (Black Host), old popular tunes (Whisper Moon), or a waltz (Piano Quartet). Bolcom’s ideology, rooted in the transcendentalism of Blake, inspires compositions concerned with momentous religious and philosophical themes, a concern expressed in intense, even flamboyant music of vivid illustrative power. These qualities are evident in Frescoes, and most notably in the monumental setting of the 46 poems in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The latter work, a summation of Bolcom’s achievements as a composer, was highly acclaimed at its world premiere in Stuttgart on January 8, 1984.