American composer

John Duffy, 89; The American composer helped his contemporaries

Mr. Duffy was a prolific composer of symphonic music and operas, with a long history of writing for stage, television and documentary film. While still in his twenties, he was appointed Music Director of Arthur Lithgow’s “Shakespeare Under the Stars” Festival at Antioch College in Ohio, responsible for providing the stage music for his productions.

He went on to hold similar positions at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, and the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, Connecticut, under the direction of John Houseman, its artistic director in the late 1950s. He has written scores for many plays on and off Broadway, including JP Donleavy’s “The Ginger Man” and the political satire “MacBird!”

In 1974, the New York State Council of the Arts asked Mr. Duffy to revive a struggling new music program called Composer in Performance, which had shut down after five years for lack of money. Mr Duffy came up with a new initiative he called Meet the Composer, a more inviting and inclusive name inspired by his reading of Walt Whitman.

As director, Mr. Duffy approached concert promoters with a deal: If you’re programming new music, Meet the Composer will send the composer to speak to the audience about the piece. Two years later, eager to reach audiences outside of New York City, he established Meet the Composer branches across the country.

“There was a huge gap between spectators and composers,” he told the New York Times in 1990. “So when an opportunity to help other composers arose, I knew very much. clearly what to do. ” In a short time, the organization was supporting some 8,000 performances per year.

In 1982, he set up a subscription to place composers in residence with American orchestras, where, in theory, they would offer advice on contemporary programming and promote the work of living composers. In 1990, 32 orchestras had composers in residence, in a variety of roles.

The program had notable successes, foremost among them Horizons, the summer festivals of contemporary music that Jacob Druckman organized at the New York Philharmonic. John Adams enjoyed a close working relationship with the San Francisco Symphony as part of the program. Other partnerships have proven to be less productive. Most of the orchestras, once the subscription disappeared, gave up on the idea.

“The specific program itself was not self-funded, that’s right,” Ed Harsh, who became president of Meet the Composer in 2007, told Chamber Music magazine in 2011. “But the way the field is the orchestra envisioned the role of a composer – whether it was a composer in residence or having a composer on hand for a performance at a minimum level or just a positive force in their repertoire – this absolutely changed. “

John Charles Patrick Duffy was born June 23, 1926 in Manhattan, one of 14 children of Irish immigrant parents. He grew up in the Woodlawn neighborhood of the Bronx, where he started playing piano and drums as a teenager, sang in the church choir, and performed in a high school dance band.

Although a minor, he enlisted in the Navy during World War II and fought in the Battle of Okinawa. After being released, he studied composition with Henry Cowell and Solomon Rosowsky in what is now the New School and with Aaron Copland for two summers at Tanglewood.

He had eclectic tastes. Before starting his night porter service at the B. Altman department store, he visited jazz clubs to hear Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and jazz would later be the focus of Meet the Composer.

“They think when you say Meet the Songwriter it means ‘serious’ music, in quotes,” he told The Times in 1990, describing his encounters with music presenters. “They don’t think about the fact that what Ornette Coleman does is composition. We like to enlighten people.”

Mr. Duffy’s more than 300 compositions included several works inspired by contemporary events and personalities. He composed the second movement of the “Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Concert Band” in honor of the four girls killed in a 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, and his opera “Muhammad Ali” (2000), directly addressing the political views of the boxer. “Black Water,” first performed in 1997, was based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned when a car driven by Senator Edward M. Kennedy drowned. left a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass.

His television scores won two Emmy Awards, the first in 1980 for the NBC special “A Talent for Life: Jews of the Italian Renaissance”, the second in 1985 for “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews”, a narrated PBS documentary. by an Israeli diplomat. Abba Eban.

Mr. Duffy left Meet the Composer in 1996. After merging with the American Music Center in 2011, it was renamed New Music USA.

In 2005 he founded the John Duffy Composers Institute at the Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk, a summer seminar to teach the basics of writing for musical theater.

Mr. Duffy leaves behind a daughter, Maura Duffy; a brother, Charles, says Bud; three sisters, Margaret Gruenfeldt, Virginia Rochileau and Eileen Duffy; one stepson, Mark Whitney Gilkey; a grandson; and a step-granddaughter.

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