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Berger, Arthur

Arthur Berger (1912 - 2003) was an influential composer, critic, and teacher for more than half a century. Born in New York City, he received his musical education at New York and Harvard Universities, pursuing further studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and at the Sorbonne. By his early twenties he was accepted into the circle of avant-garde New York composers and became a member of the Young Composers Group that revolved around Aaron Copland as its mentor. In his capacity as critic, Berger became one of the chief spokesmen of American music for that period.

Although Berger made notable contributions to the orchestral repertory, he devoted the major share of his compositional activity to chamber and solo piano music. Virgil Thomson called his Quartet in C Major for Winds “one of the most satisfactory pieces for winds in the whole modern repertory”, and his String Quartet received a New York music Critics Circle Citation in 1962. Among his orchestral works are Serenade Concertante, written for the CBS Orchestra; Polyphony, a Louisville Orchestra commission; and Ideas of Order, commissioned by Dimitri Mitropoulos for the New York Philharmonic - a work that received a full page story in Time Magazine following its premiere.

Among Berger’s numerous published critical and analytical articles, his seminal study “Problems of Pitch Organization in Stravinsky” applied the expression “octatonic” to the 8-note scale that has since become conventionally known by that term. At a time when Stravinsky’s so-called neoclassicism was under attack, Berger wrote extensively and cogently in its defense. He was one of the first to write about Charles Ives and the first to write a book on the music of Aaron Copland. This study, which had occupied him since the early 1930's, was published by the Oxford University Press at a time (1953) when there was no precedent for books on American composers dealing as he did with their musical technique. In 1990, “Aaron Copland” was reprinted by Da Capo Press.

When Berger received an award from the Council of Learned Societies in 1933, it turned out to be but the first in a long series of honors bestowed on him by prestigious organizations over the years: Guggenheim, Fromm, Coolidge, Naumburg, and Fulbright Foundations; the NEA, League of Composers, Massachusetts Council on the Arts & Humanities to name a few. He was a Fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Berger started his college teaching career in 1939 at Mills College where the following year Darius Milhaud joined the Faculty. It was Milhaud who persuaded Pierre Monteux, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, to ask Berger to write a Woodwind Quartet for first-desk men of that orchestra. In 1943 Berger became a music critic for the New York Sun and in 1946 accepted Virgil Thomson’s invitation to join the New York Herald Tribune. After a decade as full-time daily music reviewer in New York City, he resumed teaching in 1953 at Brandeis University during the formation of its graduate music program. Following his retirement from Brandeis in 1980 as the Irving Fine Professor of Music Emeritus, Berger taught at the New England Conservatory of Music until 1999. Coinciding with his 90th birthday in 2002 the University of California Press published Berger’s memoir, “Reflections Of An American Composer,” which won a 2003 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award.

Arthur Berger died in Boston on October 7, 2003. His archive is in the American Music Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. His personal Web site is located at www.arthurvberger.com

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