Sometimes it happens that a child's fancy develops, in almost storybook fashion, into a life's work. Such was the case for American composer Jack Beeson. While growing up in Muncie, IN, the young Beeson listened to radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York and loved what he heard; he decided, as youths are want to do, on a course for his life: composer of operas. And three-quarters of a century later, that is precisely what Jack Beeson was (though he has also thrown a few non-opera works into his catalog for good measure). Beeson was born in 1921 and studied piano privately as a child. He took bachelor's and master's degrees from Eastman, in 1942 and 1943, and then in 1944 he moved to New York City and took lessons from Béla Bartók for several months. In 1945 he joined the family of Columbia University as both faculty member and student -- he took graduate courses in conducting and musicology and at the same time began teaching at the school, beginning a long association that would culminate in his being named, in 1967, Edward MacDowell Professor of Music. Beginning in 1948, Beeson spent two years in Rome -- the combined rewards of winning the Prix de Rome and a Fulbright Fellowship. Beeson spent his student days composing concert music (by 1950 he had five piano sonatas, some songs, and some chamber music, to a total of about 50 pieces, to his credit -- almost all of which were eventually withdrawn), but starting in 1950 with the opera Jonah, Beeson began to issue operas at relatively regular intervals. Next came Hello out There (1954) and then The Sweet Bye and Bye (1957). He spent considerably longer on Lizzie Borden, a "family portrait" in three acts finished in 1965; the work, which is energetic, violent, and full of a peculiarly blunt lyricism, has since gone on to numerous performances and is widely considered to be among the finest American operas. Six further operas of varying length have appeared since Lizzie Borden, including the one-act chamber opera Sorry, Wrong Number (1996, premiered 1999) and two items composed to libretti by Sheldon Harnick (who is better-known for his lighter Broadway work): Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (1975) and Dr. Heidegger's Fountain of Youth (1978). Beeson's concert music is not voluminous but it does cover a great deal of ground, from symphony (one, composed in 1959) and sonata (several, including the above-mentioned piano items and a 1953 viola sonata) to church organ pieces and music for chorus. Not surprisingly, he has authored numerous vehicles for solo voice and piano/ensemble, all of which reveal his skilled operatic touch. However, he composed virtually no instrumental music after the mid-1960s.
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