Composer Report Essay, Research Paper
There have been many extraordinary composers of music throughout history. Each composer has his or her own wonderful characteristics and abilities that have touched the special few, or the many peoples of the world. Three composers that have not been largely recognized but highly acclaimed for their music are Ron Nelson, Russell Alexander, and Eric Whitacre. The Carl Sandburg High School Symphonic Band was fortunate enough to perform a composition by each of these men. Ron Nelson, in particular, has a special and interesting history that many people do not know of.
Ron Nelson was born in Joliet, Illinois, December 14, 1929. As a child, Ron grew up around the hopes and dreams of his parents. His father wanted him to be a professional left-handed pitcher, but his mother wished for him to explore the musical field and become a pianist like her. Ron began obligatory piano lessons at age 6 with the same teacher as his mother. At the same age, Nelson wrote his first composition, The Sailboat, which he still has because my mother saved everything.
At age 12, Nelson changed from studying the piano to studying the organ. At age 13, he played for his church to raise money for secret flying lessons. Nelson knows that he benefited from taking organ lessons because they reveal the basic principles of the orchestra.
When Nelson attended Joliet Township High School, he taught himself the string bass in order to be a part of the orchestra. He also began conducting and arranging shows for his school. The director, Bruce Housknecht, encouraged Nelson to compose his own work. This encouragement led to a 22-minute concerto for piano and orchestra composed at age 17.
The concerto and a recommendation from his teacher and mentor, Housknecht, got Nelson accepted to the Eastman School of Music. Nelson studied under the wise supervision of Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. “Hanson’s genius was to create an environment where you couldn’t wait to write something for the next class. He was a source of inspiration, a mentor, and one of the reasons that I stayed at Eastman.” Nelson earned his B.Mus degree in 1952, M.Mus. in 1953, and D.M.A. in 1956, all from Eastman.
Ron Nelson traveled to many places all over the world during his lifetime to study music in different cultures. In 1954 through 1956, Nelson went to Paris on a Fullbright Grant to study at the Ecole Normale de Musique and the Paris Conservatory. “Paris was the perfect antidote to the heavy drain of doctoral work. I interviewed at the school and was offered the option to study with either Nadia Boulanger or Arthur Honegger. I chose Honneger because I admired his music. He subsequently became ill, so I ended up studying with Tony Aubin and spent the rest of my time travelling. My favorite course at Eastman was Fine Arts, where we dealt with the great cultures of Egypt and Greece. To actually travel to those places was overwhelming,” said Nelson about his visit to Paris. During a visit to England, he met two of his heroes, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton. “Walton’s Troilus and Cressida was being rehearsed and I got the chance to meet Walton briefly. He was a very cold person, not at all like his music, with its warm and dynamic qualities. On the other hand, Vaughan Williams was like meeting God. He was very kind and his personality did seem to fit his music.”
After graduating, Nelson joined the music faculty of Brown University in 1956 for seven years. From 1963-1973, he served as Chairman of the Music Department for Brown University. In 1993, Nelson was named professor emeritus upon his retirement.
Ron Nelson wrote many wonderful and memorable pieces of music that people of every age will enjoy for years to come. Here are a few examples:
Savannah River Holiday was composed in 1953 and established, for better and worse, what some would see as his “style.” Nelson said, “I have long ago accepted being typecast as a composer of flashy, high energy overtures. I would like listeners to understand that I do not ‘arrange’ my lighter pieces, I really feel this music. There are two distinct aesthetic tracks in my musical personality, and I believe that both are composed and orchestrated equally well.”
Rocky Point Holiday started the take off for Nelson s writing for concert bands. Says Nelson of this piece; “This style had its genesis at Eastman. I came from huge, Revelli-style bands in Joliet and had that sound in my ear. Then I got to Eastman and heard this very tight, sinewy sound in the form for the Eastman Wind Ensemble under Frederick Fennell. This sound was seeping into my musical consciousness, and it was not until I got away from it that I realized how important this experience was.”
Ron Nelson is the Renaissance man of concert band composition, and not simply because he wrote the Renaissance-era piece, Courtly Airs and Dances, either. It is because he is a composer whose skill is not bounded by instrumentation, and who can express himself, regardless of the inspiration, or lack thereof, at the time. Nelson says, “I think that composers MUST have something to say musically, and I think that all music, regardless of its specific gravity, must be well crafted. I hope the audience hears these pieces as such, well crafted, with something to say.”