Imbrie, Andrew

Imbrie, Andrew
Apr. 6, 1921-Dec. 5, 2007
American composer


In a statement adapted by Andrew Imbrie from the liner notes to his String Quartet no. 4, and submitted to this publication, the American composer summed up his method: "Composing for me is a matter of drawing out the consequences (as I perceive them) of an initial idea. This idea may present itself as contour, rhythm, gesture, or some combination of these; and the first step is to pin it down, to give it more definite shape and character. Once the idea has become specific enough, it begins to generate its own continuation. This is possible because every idea worthy of the name is fraught with potential energy: its components interact so as to create an expectation of forward movement. If this does not happen, it is always because the idea has been imperfectly realized and must be tinkered with until its various aspects are brought into effective cooperation."

Andrew Welsh Imbrie was born in New York City on April 6, 1921, to parents of Scottish descent: Andrew Clerk Imbrie, a businessman, and Dorothy Welsh Imbrie. Andrew began taking piano lessons before he was five; his first teacher was Ann Abajian, who, in addition to giving him piano lessons, encouraged him to compose music. " I owe to her my present attitude toward composition as an entirely natural form of expression," he said. "She knew how to start a young pupil composing before he was ready to acquire a real technique, so that his interest was kept alive and his search for self-expression ultimately led him to the acquisition of technique."

He was six when his father moved the family to Princeton, New Jersey, and he attended Princeton Country Day School. From 1930 to 1942 he traveled once a week to Philadelphia for piano studies at the Philadelphia Music Academy and later the Ornstein School of Music with Leo Ornstein, a one-time concert pianist and one of America's earliest modernist composers. Imbrie told David Ewen for Composers Since 1900 (1981), "Leo Ornstein taught me by example. One learned from what he did even more than from what he said, though he was highly articulate and at times even fascinating in his conversation."

Imbrie also told Ewen that his early associations with orchestras left an indelible impression on him-in particular-playing the piano with the orchestras at school and, in 1933, with the Philadelphia Orchestra as one of the two pianists performing Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals. "What remained in my mind is a strong impression of the orchestra, not only as a support for my piano playing, but as an exciting milieu, surrounding me with music, and infinitely subtle and powerful in its musical utterance. This 'gut' feeling of being in the midst of the orchestra has always guided me back to writing for the orchestral medium."

He was conscious of another powerful influence at about 10 or 11 years of age, when he first heard Wagner's Parsifal and Die Gotterdammerung. "The music haunted me for years, as well as the power of the drama which I perceived simply as an adventure story, disregarding the philosophical content. I collected leitmotives the way most children collect stamps."

By the time he was 16 he knew that he wanted to become a composer, rather than a pianist, and during that summer he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France. On his return to the United States he went on to study harmony and composition privately with Roger Sessions (1937-38).

Graduating from the Lawrenceville School, a private preparatory school, in 1938, he enrolled at Princeton University to study the fugue, musical analysis, and composition with Sessions, who was a member of the music faculty. For his senior thesis, Imbrie wrote his first string quartet, which was performed at Princeton in June 1942. It was successful enough to be performed by several well-known string-quartet ensembles, to receive the New York Music Critics' Circle Award following its performance in New York City by the Bennington Quartet on April 10, 1944, and eventually to be recorded by the Juilliard String Quartet.

Imbrie graduated from Princeton with a bachelor of arts degree in 1942 and from 1942 to 1946 served in the Army Signal Corps, near Washington, D.C. During the war years, his sole musical activity was providing original music for informal musical shows which he improvised on the piano-mainly in the style of Gershwin. He never wrote it down, but taught it to the performers by rote.

After the war, Imbrie followed Sessions to the University of California in Berkeley, where he was then on the music faculty. On an Alice M. Ditson Fellowship from Columbia University, Imbrie earned his master's degree in music in 1947. An outstanding composition written during these years was the Piano Trio, composed for the Princeton bicentennial and performed there in March 1946.

After receiving his degree, Imbrie was appointed instructor of music at the University of California in Berkeley on condition that he be allowed to take advantage of his prize, the Prix de Rome, and reside at the American Academy in Rome between 1947 and 1949 before the appointment. In 1947, both his Piano Sonata and Ballad in D, for orchestra, were introduced in Rome, the Ballad on the Rome Radio (RAI) before its first public hearing in Florence on June 20, 1949. In 1948 he completed his Divertimento for six instruments (also performed in Rome on May 5, 1949) and a choral work to a poem by Walt Whitman, On the Beach at Night, which was introduced by the university chorus and orchestra at Berkeley in April 1952.

Back in the United States in 1949 as an instructor of music at the University of California, he rose to the rank of assistant professor in 1951, and associate professor in 1957; from 1960 until his retirement in 1991, he was a full professor. He said, "Teaching has been an indispensable part of my life. It keeps me from taking things for granted, and it has kept me in contact with what each new generation is thinking about and doing."

Both the String Quartet no. 2 (1953) and the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1954) showed decided growth in Imbrie's technical skill and articulation. The String Quartet was introduced in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 12, 1952, by the Kroll Quartet. Virgil Thomson of the New York Herald Tribune called both string quartets "the work of a master talent." After four years, the Violin Concerto was performed by the San Francisco Symphony, under Enrique Jorda with Robert Gross as soloist, in Berkeley on April 22, 1958; it won the Naumburg Recording Award a year later and was released on Columbia Records. Both works reflect the powerful influence of Bartok and Sessions in their rhythmic drive, strong-fibered and dramatic lyricism, and forceful and frequently dissonant harmony.

On January 31, 1953, Imbrie married Barbara Cushing, who at the time of their marriage was a junior high school teacher. Their union produced two sons, Andrew Philip Imbrie, born in 1958, and John Haller Imbrie, born in 1962 and now deceased. Imbrie received two Guggenheim Fellowships, in 1953 and 1959-1960. In 1955 he earned the Merit Award from the Boston Symphony and in 1957 the Creative Arts Award from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Imbrie's String Quartet no. 3 (1957), commissioned by the University of Illinois in Urbana and the Fromm Music Foundation, received its first hearing in Urbana on March 29, 1957. When the quartet was performed in New York on October 13, 1958, Allen Hughes described it in the New York Herald Tribune: "Contrapuntal writing is sinewy; the frank, rugged dissonances are expressive, and the concurrent play of lyricism and dramatic interjection is telling." Ingolf Dahl of Musical Quarterly (1960) praised all three Imbrie quartets for their "combination of clear, classically oriented form with the spontaneity of those welcome comments in which the music bursts out of the established patterns in free declamation."

On December 9, 1959, the San Francisco Symphony under Enrique Jorda premiered Imbrie's first composition solely for orchestra-Legend-for the American Music Center Commission Series. This short composition, with no programmatic content, was described by Arthur Bloomfield of Musical America: "The most fascinating aspect of the score is its sound texture-very transparent in its use of pure, lustrous colors-for Imbrie had a superb ear … highly chromatic, quite fragmentary and complex in part-writing and rhythm … not difficult to listen to."

In 1960, on commission from the Interracial Chorus in New York, Imbrie composed Drum Taps, for chorus and orchestra with a text from Walt Whitman. The Interracial Chorus performed the work in New York in the spring of 1961. Another composition in 1960 was a one-act chamber opera, Three Against Christmas (retitled Christmas in Peebles Town) for five principal singers, double chorus, and orchestra, first performed in Berkeley on December 3, 1964. This opera's libretto, by Richard Wincor, is a fantasy about the abolition of Christmas and its consequence in the mythical town of Peebles.

Imbrie's Symphony no. 1 was written in 1966 at the request of Josef Krips, musical director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, after he had conducted one of Imbrie's works. Krips and the San Francisco Symphony introduced it on May 11, 1966.

In 1967-68, Imbrie, as composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome, wrote the Chamber Symphony, which was premiered at the Congregation of the Arts at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, on August 11, 1968. Robert Commanday of the San Francisco Chronicle, in reviewing the West Coast premiere in 1970, said it "is so rich in implication, it insists on deeper, further involvement. This music is to stay with us… . There is a passion here in the rhythmic thrusts which, phrase by phrase, builds to a hair-raising crisis, then lets off in gradual release of tension. This ecstatic, highly personalized style marks the composer in his maturity, writing from a vital compulsion and evincing a minimal sense of labor."

Before the 1960s were over, Imbrie had further strengthened his position in American music with String Quartet no. 4 and his Symphony no. 2, both completed in 1969. The string quartet was commissioned by the Pro Arte String Quartet, which introduced it in Madison, Wisconsin, on November 17, 1969, and in San Francisco in April 1971. Robert Commanday praised it in the San Francisco Chronicle: "A sense of genuine passion is the essence of the Fourth Quartet. Imbrie launches the challenge immediately, into a fiery complex of compacted ideas and broad-reaching melodic statement. This insists on exploration before the softer, almost vocal, section can assert its nature, later rediscovered as a fulfillment of the impassioned business."

Imbrie's Symphony no. 2 was performed for the first time on May 21, 1970, by the San Francisco Symphony under Josef Krips. This time Robert Commanday noted the symphony's "charge of ideas, impulses, the generation and regeneration of motion from every orchestral resource. This is not the bruitisme of the avant-garde; it has a power far more urgent than that because of inner forces."

Indicative of Imbrie's growing international status was a 1970 commission from the Halle Orchestra of Manchester to write a new symphony, his third. It was performed in Manchester on December 3, 1970, with Maurice Handford conducting, and it won the Walter Hinrichson Award to finance a recording by the London Symphony under Harold Farberman. The symphony opens with an expansive 89-measure introduction before the three movements begin to unfold. A London critic for Tempo commented on the recording: "The quality I admire above all in this music is its toughness; by which I mean strength without brutality or stupidity. The general character is active, flexible, energetic: splendidly athletic and sinewy, both in the long-uncurling lyrical themes and the brisk rhythmic suites. The particular character of each movement defines itself more vividly with closer acquaintanceship. The first movement proper is a type of allegro increasingly dominated by lyrical content, and as such it contrasts with the more forceful allegro finale, which develops into a vigorous and prolonged contrapuntal tutti… . Between them is a perfectly judged slow movement: a prolonged cantilena for clarinet, rising to a tutti, and returning a renewed solo to the peacefulness of the opening."

In the early 1970s Imbrie returned to the concerto form, which he had abandoned for almost two decades. The Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1973) was commissioned and performed by the Oakland Symphony in California, with Sally Kell as soloist, on April 24, 1973. Piano concertos were written in 1973 and 1974: the First Piano Concerto was written for Helene Wickett, who performed it at Saratoga, California, on August 4, 1973, and the Second Piano Concerto, commissioned by the Ford Foundation, had its first performance by the Indianapolis Symphony on January 29, 1976, with Gita Karasik as soloist and Oleg Kovalenko as conductor. In a brochure on Imbrie issued by BMI, James G. Roy Jr. described the First Piano Concerto as "playful, provocative, and witty," the Second Piano Concerto as leaning "to the sterner side," and the Cello Concerto, by contrast, "as haunting and ethereal."

Imbrie later added the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (1977), which was commissioned by Francis Goelet, chairman of the New York Philharmonic music policy committee, for the first flutist, Julius Baker, who premiered it with the Philharmonic under the direction of Erich Leinsdorf on October 13, 1977. A critic for High Fidelity/Musical America noted that "the most effective moments are those involving reduced forces-the solo in the first movement or its nocturnes with horn and strings at the beginning and end of the slow movement."

To commemorate the American bicentenary, Imbrie wrote his first full-length opera (his second work for the stage) on commission from the San Francisco Opera with additional funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. Angle of Repose, with a libretto by Oakley Hall, is based on Wallace Stegner's 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The plot, set in Western U.S., follows a Western mining-camp family from the 1870s to the present. In a flashback a half-century later, the crippled Lyman Ward and his daughter, Shelley, review the erratic history of his grandparents' marriage (Oliver Ward to Susan Burling) and their varied misfortunes. In considering this source for his bicentennial opera, Imbrie thought it would "be suited for the occasion, dealing as it does with our national and regional heritage. It impressed me particularly because it exemplified so poignantly the paradoxes inherent in our recurrent American dream of opening and civilizing new frontiers." It took Imbrie two full years to write his opera, and on November 6, 1976, it was produced in San Francisco. Although the music is atonal and dissonant, Imbrie has introduced into his score miners' choral pieces, waltzes, Virginia reels, and other American folk elements. "Imbrie has fashioned a score with great variety and consistency," wrote Alan Rich in New York, "and a melodic power that any intelligent hearer can easily grasp. He has found a neat, subtle manner for differentiating the style of characters from past and present… . The opera is beautifully written for singers, handsomely scored for a large orchestra. It … doesn't seem to waste a moment in the telling of an absorbing and compelling story."

Imbrie began his work in the 1980s with Prometheus Bound, taken from the Aeschylus play of the same name. The piece, written for three soloists, double chorus, and orchestra, premiered at Berkeley in 1980. He followed that achievement with a series of new works: Five Roethke Songs for soprano and pianoforte (1980), Three Campion Songs for vocal quartet and pianoforte (1981), Song for St. Cecilia's Day for mixed chorus, brasses, percussion, two pianos, solo flute, and two violins (1981), and Short Story for solo piano (1982). In the midst of all these successes, Imbrie's younger son, John, passed away in 1981. In memoriam Imbrie composed the moving Requiem for solo soprano, mixed chorus, and orchestra in 1984. The work was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, which premiered it in 1985.

Imbrie's work from the late 1980s and 1990s include the piano solo Daedalus (1986), commissioned by the City University of New York, Organ Prelude (1987), String Quartet no. 5 (1987), Reminiscence for guitar (1992), Piano Concerto no. 3 (1992), and Mukashi Mukashi (Once Upon a Time) for two pianos (1992). His ambitious Adam (1994), a cantata for mixed chorus with soprano solo and small orchestra, was inspired by late medieval and Civil War-era texts. Commissioned by the Cantata Singers of Boston, it premiered there in 1994, with David Hoose directing. Imbrie completed Spring Fever in 1996.

Though he retired from Berkeley in 1990, Imbrie has served as a visiting professor at a number of universities around the country including the University of Alabama (1992), University of Chicago (1994, 1996-97), Northwestern University (1994), and Harvard University (1997).

Speaking of his composing procedures, Andrew Imbrie said: "My way of working is to begin at the beginning. I start with an idea-by this I don't mean an abstract idea but a rhythm, a chord, a part of a melody, or perhaps just an inkling of some combination of these things. By trial and error I attempt to nail down this idea, to establish its speed, duration, color, loudness, shape and texture-in short its character. Then I listen to it to discover where it wants to go next. By this process the idea begins to grow. Very soon, however, things get stuck, the bigger problems begin to loom up. One can't proceed very far without knowing in a general way what kinds of contrast are going to be needed and about how long it should take to get to the next big change in the music. In other words, the demand for proportion-of large rhythmic shape-begins to assert itself, again not as an abstract principle, but as an urgent necessity. That's why I almost never use the word 'form' because to me the word implies that the music is poured like cement into a prefabricated mold, then allowed to harden. For me the shape of the finished product of the 'musical' imagination is more like the 'outcome' of tendencies present in the ideas. Musical ideas, then, have not only shape, color, duration, etc., but also implications for the future. The composer is both leader and follower: the ideas are his own, but while he writes, he listens-and the ideas make their own demands."

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