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Louis Gruenberg

Born: 1884

Died: 1964

Nationality: American

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Louis Gruenberg was born on August 3, 1884 near Brest Litvosk, Russia. Shortly after his birth his family emigrated to the United States, his father working as a violinist in New York City. Young Gruenberg showed early signs of talent for the piano, and he was soon being trained by his father so that their meager income might be augmented. By the age of eight, Gruenberg was taking piano lessons with Adele Margulies at the National Conservatory in New York, then headed by Antonin Dvorak.

From his earliest years, Gruenberg played both solo recitals and in ensembles and in his early twenties he went to study in Europe with the great pianist and composer, Ferruccio Busoni, at the Vienna Conservatory. Busoni's positive attitude and use of ethnic and folk musics was an enormous influence on Gruenberg's musical thinking.

Prior to World War I, Gruenberg took students and toured, both as accompanist and soloist. For a time he travelled with Enrico Caruso as his accompanist. In 1919 the composer wrote The Hill of Dreams for orchestra, which received the prestigious Flagler Prize. This event gave Gruenberg the courage to devote himself entirely to composition and, in the 1920's, he was instrumental in organizing the American Music Guild and the League of Composers.  It was also in the 1920's that Gruenberg began to make his mark as a composer, especially through his fascination with jazz, composing at least a dozen major works showing a strong jazz and ragtime influence. He published a set of harmonized Spiritual melodies in 1926 and gained increased exposure for two jazz influenced chamber vocal works, The Daniel Jazz (1923) and The Creation (1924).

Perhaps the high point of his public career came in 1933-34 when the Metropolitan Opera produced his expressionistic opera, The Emperor Jones, based on the play by Eugene O'Neill, with Lawrence Tibbett in the leading role. It was performed by the Met eleven times in two seasons, was featured on the cover of "Time" Magazine and received great critical acclaim. From 1933 to 1936, Gruenberg was head of the composition department at the Chicago Musical College. After this period, he moved with his family to California, concerning himself with the merging of music with visual media and film. He collaborated with Pare Lorentz to create "The Fight for Life," a documentary on childbirth in the Chicago slums. For this and two other films, Gruenberg was nominated for the Academy Award for best score.

In 1944 Jascha Heifetz commissioned and premiered the Violin Concerto, Op. 47 with Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra. The work was also recorded with Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. During the last two decades of his life Gruenberg became increasingly isolated from the concert music world. He maintained a close friendship with Arnold Schoenberg until the latter's death in 1951, and was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He continued to compose until his death in 1964 and the output of his later years is formidable. Among many other works he composed five symphonies, four full length operas (Volpone, The Emperor Jones, Jack and the Beanstalk and Antony and Cleopatra) and a lengthy oratorio entitled A Song of Faith.

Louis Gruenberg's music is published by Gunmar Music (G. Schirmer, Inc.).

— May 2002
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