Composer John Harbison is among America's most prominent artistic figures. He has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation's "genius" award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities. Harbison has composed music for most of this country’s premiere musical institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera (for whom he wrote The Great Gatsby), the Chicago Lyric Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Santa Fe and Aspen festivals. His works include five string quartets, six symphonies, a ballet, three operas, and numerous chamber and choral works.
Harbison's music is distinguished by its exceptional resourcefulness and expressive range. He is considered to be "original, varied, and absorbing — relatively easy for audiences to grasp and yet formal and complex enough to hold our interest through repeated hearings — his style boasts both lucidity and logic" (Fanfare). Harbison is also a gifted commentator on the art and craft of composition and was recognized in his student years as an outstanding poet (he wrote his own libretto for Gatsby).
Several of his works have recently premiered: Koussevitsky Said and Symphony No. 6, both by the Boston Symphony; Closer to My Own Life, on texts by Alice Munro, by the Met Orchestra and mezzo-soprano Christine Rice led by Fabio Luisi; Finale, Presto, a "comment" on Haydn’s unfinished Op. 103 invited by the Brentano Quartet; String Quartet No. 5 by the Pro Arte Quartet; Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano for Cho-Liang Lin; Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Mary Lou (for the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony); The Seven Ages (A Koussevitsky commission for the New York New Music Ensemble and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players); A Clear Midnight (Pro Arte Singers); Winter's Tale (Boston Modern Orchestra Project [BMOP], complete revised version); Symphony No. 5, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra; The Great Gatsby Suite (for the Aspen Festival Orchestra); Cortège, for six percussionists (New England Conservatory); Milosz Songs (commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for long-time Harbison champion Dawn Upshaw); the Concerto for Bass Viol (commissioned by the International Society for Double Bassists for a consortium of 15 major orchestras); and But Mary Stood: Sacred Symphony for Soprano, Chorus and Strings (Cantata Singers of Boston).
Harbison's present composition projects include a work for voice, oboe, and string quartet (co-commissioned); a work for mezzo-soprano and string quartet (Network for New Music); and a string trio for Camerata Pacifica.
Harbison’s opera Full Moon in March (BMOP Sound) was released on CD in April 2009 and The First Four String Quartets(Centaur) followed in September, ahead of several new recordings issued last season Christmas Vespers (Brassjar Music), Montale Occasions (Albany), and the ballet Ulysses (BMOP Sound). Other recent releases include Cortège (Naxos), Rubies (after Thelonius Monk’s "Ruby, My Dear") (Naxos: Schwarz/Seattle); Suite for Cello Solo (Albany: Carolin Stinson, cello); and the Woodwind Quintet (Summit: Lieurance Woodwind Quintet). Altogether, more than 90 of his compositions have been recorded on labels such as Albany, Centaur, Nonesuch, Northeastern, Harmonia Mundi, New World, Decca, Koch, Archetype, CRI, Naxos, Bridge, Cedille, and Musica Omnia. The Musica Omnia double album of works for string quartet was named one of the top ten classical CDs of the year by The New York Times
Harbison has been composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Tanglewood, Marlboro, and Santa Fe Chamber music festivals, Songfest, and the American Academy in Rome. As a conductor, Harbison has led a number of leading orchestras and chamber groups. From 1990 to 1992 he was Creative Chair with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducting music from Monteverdi to the present, and in 1991, at the Ojai Festival, he led the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Harbison has also conducted many other ensembles, among them the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, and the Handel and Haydn Society. Mr. Harbison first led Bach cantata performances in 1958 as conductor of Harvard’s Bach Society Orchestra. He has continued to do so every year since then, in two tenures as music director of Boston’s Cantata Singers, and then for many years as principal guest conductor of Emmanuel Music in Boston, leading performances there not only of Bach cantatas, but also 17th-century motets, and contemporary music.
Harbison was born in Orange, New Jersey on December 20, 1938 into a musical family. He was improvising on the piano by five years of age and started a jazz band at age 12. He did his undergraduate work at Harvard University and earned an MFA from Princeton University. Following completion of a junior fellowship at Harvard, Harbison joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where, in 1984, he was named Class of 1949 Professor of Music; in 1994, Killian Award Lecturer in recognition of "extraordinary professional accomplishments;"and in 1995 he was named Institute Professor, the highest academic distinction MIT offers to resident faculty. He has also taught at CalArts and Boston University, and in 1991 he was the Mary Biddle Duke Lecturer in Music at Duke University. Furthering the work of younger composers is one of Harbison's prime interests, and until recently he served as president of the Aaron Copland Fund for Music.
In 1998, Harbison was named winner of the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities, a prize established in honor of the late Senator John Heinz by his wife Teresa to recognize five leaders annually for significant and sustained contributions in the Arts and Humanities, the Environment, the Human Condition, Public Policy and Technology, and the Economy and Employment. He is the recipient of numerous other awards, among them the Distinguished Composer award from the American Composers Orchestra (2002), the Harvard Arts Medal (2000), the American Music Center's Letter of Distinction (2000), the Kennedy Center Friedheim First Prize (for his Piano Concerto), a MacArthur Fellowship (1989), and the Pulitzer Prize (1987). He also holds four honorary doctorates.
Much of Harbison’s violin music has been composed for his wife Rose Mary, with whom he serves as artistic director of the annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, founded in 1989 and held on the family farm in Wisconsin, where much of Harbison’s music has been composed.
In recent years, Harbison has revived his career as a jazz pianist. Early on, as the founder-leader of the Harbison Heptet and as sideman in many other groups — playing with Tom Artin, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones, and Edmund Hall (1952–1963) — he took a jazz sabbatical for four decades, returning in 2003 to found the Token Creek Jazz Ensemble. The quartet and guests perform exclusively for the annual Token Creek Festival in Wisconsin. As a keyboard player he explores affinities between jazz change playing and figured bass realization.
Harbison’s music is published exclusively by Associated Music Publishers.
— December 2013