Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Peabody Composition at 150

Peabody Composition at 150

By Sue De Pasquale

Photography from the Peabody Archives

Since 1871, composers at Peabody have had a far-reaching impact on the world of music — creating seminal works, innovating composition techniques and genres, and sharing their considerable wisdom with generations of young composers. Read about just some of these compelling people and programs in the short stories that follow.

Listen to the Peabody Composition at 150 playlist as you read:

Asger Hamerik


The story of composition at Peabody perhaps most aptly begins with Asger Hamerik, the second director of the Conservatory, who led it from 1871 to 1898. The Danish composer studied composition with Hans von Bülow in Berlin and then Hector Berlioz in Paris before assuming his role at Peabody. Under his tenure, the Conservatory greatly expanded its offerings for classes in “harmony” (theory taught through composition), and it became a cultural hub for the citizens of Baltimore. Hamerik led performances that often featured his own music, which epitomized the Romantic era, including premieres of six of his seven symphonies. His Requiem premiered at Peabody in 1895 to a standing-room only crowd. He dedicated the work to another Peabody composer and his former pupil, Hermine Hoen, one of two students to complete study in theory/composition, in 1882. The Requiem, Baltimore Sun music critic Tim Smith would later write, has “original flourishes … and unleashes genuine drama along the way. In the end, it’s a substantial achievement by any measure.”

Asger Hamerik established a rich tradition of Peabody leaders who were also well-regarded composers. His successors include:

Peter Mennin (director, 1958–1962), who wrote nine symphonies, several concertos, and numerous other works for wind band, chorus, and other ensembles. His Third Symphony, which he finished the day he turned 23, was a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1950.

Richard Franko Goldman (director, 1968–1977), who wrote many works for various ensembles, including A Sentimental Journey for Band (1941).

Robert Sirota (director, 1995–2005) who has composed nearly 100 works. He recently celebrated his 70th birthday with Sirota @ 70, a season-long celebration in 2019–20 featuring performances of his works spanning 20 years.


When Mary Howe (’22) joined forces with composer Amy Beach to found the Society of American Women Composers in 1925, she saw a need for advocacy and leadership that would inspire her work over the next four decades, even as she achieved prominence as a composer and performer. Howe toured widely as a pianist, studied composition for a year with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and spent summers composing at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. But it was in Washington D.C. that she may have had her biggest impact on the American cultural scene. Howe and her husband, a prominent lawyer, raised the money to launch the National Symphony Orchestra in 1930, and Howe founded the Chamber Music Society of Washington, together with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. “Women composers should be played more than they are,” Howe said in a 1952 interview with The Washington Post. “I know I considered it a handicap to be a woman when I started composing. I’m not a feminist. But I think I would have gotten along faster if I’d been a man.”

Mary Howe’s compositions include more than 20 large orchestral pieces, as well as a substantial body of chamber and piano music. In describing her approach to composing, Howe said that her “back foot is in the garden gate of the Romantics, but I feel no hesitation in thumbing the passing modern idiom for a hitch-hike to where I want to go.”

Mary Howe
Henry Cowell


Credited with such innovations as “tone clusters” (chords produced on the piano by depressing adjacent keys), and works performed directly on the piano’s strings, avant-garde composer Henry Cowell recognized the power of popular appeal. On December 9, 1951, just a few months into his five-year tenure on the composition faculty at Peabody (1951–56), Cowell achieved a television “first” in front of a studio audience on WBAL-TV. As he composed an entire piece on a blackboard — eventually dubbed TV Song for Impromptu Chorus and Orchestra — the audience composed the verse, then copyists quickly made parts for the studio orchestra to perform the work. It was a hit. Of course, Cowell’s impact on the field of classical music was much vaster than this headline-grabbing stunt. “No other composer of our time has produced a body of works so radical and so normal, so penetrating and so comprehensive,” wrote Virgil Thomson in the early 1950s.

As a pedagogue, and through founding New Music Quarterly (1927) and organizing well-regarded festivals of new music, the prolific Henry Cowell influenced a generation of well-known composers, including John Cage, George Gershwin, and Lou Harrison.


While Dominick Argento (BM ’51, MM ’54, Composition) was pursuing his master’s degree in composition at Peabody, he briefly filled a role as music director of the Hilltop Opera Company. It would turn out to have an outsized impact on his future career as America’s preeminent composer of lyric operatic and choral music. Hilltop had been launched by Argento’s composition teacher Hugo Weisgall as a Baltimore venue for presenting new operatic works. Through his work with the company, Argento gained broad exposure to new opera and also forged a creative partnership with stage director John Olon-Scrymgeour that would last for decades. Argento, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975 for his song cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, taught at the University of Minnesota for four decades, but also found inspiration for his operas from time he spent in Florence, Italy, and from his wife, singer Carolyn Bailey, his informal adviser and muse.

During his years in Baltimore, Argento studied with Hugo Weisgall, one of America’s most renowned composers of operas and large-scale song cycles. Weisgall studied at Peabody from 1927 to 1932 and later earned a PhD in German literature from Johns Hopkins (1940), even as he earned diplomas in conducting and composition at the Curtis Institute. He directed the Baltimore Institute of Musical Arts, which was created in the 1940s and primarily served African-American students, and he later led the Cantors Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Dominick Argento
Nadia Boulanger


When Nadia Boulanger picked up the baton to conduct a concert in her honor at Peabody, in 1962, it was a homecoming for the acclaimed composer, teacher, and lecturer, who had served on the Conservatory’s faculty from 1942 to 1944. Considered one of the major influences on modern classical music, Boulanger gave up composing in the early 1920s to devote her energies primarily to teaching. Over the next six decades the strong-willed Frenchwoman taught more than 1,200 students, who came to be known as her “Boulangerie,” including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass (who had also previously studied at the Peabody Preparatory), Walter Piston, Dave Brubeck, and Burt Bacharach.

Widely sought after as a conductor, Boulanger was the first woman to conduct London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936, and in a 1938 tour of the United States she became the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra.


Ironically enough, the composer credited with founding the Electronic Music Studio at Peabody in 1967, the first of its kind at an American conservatory, did not want to be defined by the new genre she advanced. “My favorite medium is voice,” said Jean Eichelberger Ivey (MM ’46, Piano) i n a 1987 interview. “It was mainly a historical accident that my electronic music tended to be featured in the late ’60s and early ’70s in connection with the Peabody studio. I prefer not to be too identified with electronic music.”

When Geoffrey Wright (MM ’81, DMA ’92, Composition) came on the scene in the mid-1970s, computing power was exorbitantly expensive so, through a timeshare agreement, he and his Peabody students would create sound files on the university’s central academic computing facility in the basement of Garland Hall, then send the data tapes off to Stanford or Colgate University. “They would convert the tapes, and a week later we’d get a reel of tape back, with music on it,” he recalled to Johns Hopkins Magazine. By 1982, technology costs had come down and the Conservatory could purchase the equipment needed to launch the Peabody Computer Music Studio, which would later merge with Ivey’s electronic music studio. Today, the Department of Computer Music at Peabody offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer music, allowing student composers to create music that uses computer music systems in conjunction with traditional instruments and ensembles.

Jean Eichelberger Ivey

Most of Jean Eichelberger Ivey’s compositions that included electronics did so in combination with live musicians. “I must say that when I first began to work in electronic music, I found it really quite exciting,” she said in 1987. “Putting electronic sounds on tape, for one thing, liberates you from notation, and you discover then that the standard musical notation, in some ways, channels your ideas in certain directions, somewhat the way every language tends to channel your thinking.”

Earle Brown


As composer-in-residence at Peabody from 1968 to 1973, avant-garde composer Earle Brown brought with him a highly innovative approach to musical notation that influenced generations of young composers — at Peabody and across the United States and Europe. Creator of the “open form” of musical construction (in which some details of a composition are clearly marked but the overall form is left to chance or the performer’s choice), Brown treated time as both static and dynamic. His 1953 work 25 Pages, for instance, was written for one to 25 pianos. It has precise notation but each page of the work can be performed in any order and either way up. In many of his compositions he used graphs to indicate pitch and rhythm. The result, as illustrated in his famous December 1952: a series of floating rectangles that evoke the mobiles of Hugh Calder, one of the many artists who inspired him. As Brown once told the Musical Times: “My primary esthetic influences were the spontaneity, direct contact, the ‘now-ness’ and the in-the-moment immediacy of the Abstract Expressionist painters, especially the ‘improvisational’ techniques of Jackson Pollock and the subtle coloristic effects of Philip Guston and Bill de Kooning.”

In the 1950s, Earle Brown — who held the W. Alton Jones Chair of Music at Peabody and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1970 — was part of the New York School of composers, which included John Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff.


By the time George Walker joined the composition faculty at Peabody in the mid-1970s, he had already achieved an impressive array of “firsts.” Among the very first Black graduates of the Curtis Institute (where he studied composition with Samuel Barber and piano with Rudolf Serkin), in 1945 he became the first African-American pianist to play a recital at New York’s Town Hall, and the first Black instrumentalist to play solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra. A decade later, he was the first Black recipient of a doctorate from the Eastman School. But perhaps his most notable first came two decades after he left Peabody when he earned a Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1996 for his work for voice and orchestra, Lilacs — the first African-American to be so honored. Performed first by the Boston Symphony, the piece is a setting of Walt Whitman’s lament for Abraham Lincoln. “I’ve benefited from being a Black composer in the sense that when there are symposiums given of music by Black composers, I would get performances by orchestras that otherwise would not have done the works,” Walker said in a 1987 interview. “The other aspect, of course, is that if I were not Black, I would have had a far wider dispersion of my music and more performances.”

George Walker

George Walker wrote more than 90 pieces for solo piano, voice, winds, small ensembles, and orchestra. His Lyric for Strings, written in memory of his grandmother, remains his best-known and most widely performed work.

Moshe Cotel

Moshe Cotel (pictured right, speaking to Elliott Carter), was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Baltimore. His works were often infused with Jewish themes and he became ordained as a rabbi just a few years before his death in 2008, at age 65. His The Night of the Murdered Poets, which incorporated writings of those murdered in the Stalinist pogrom of 1952, premiered in New York in 1978.


Moshe Cotel, then chair of Peabody’s Composition Department (faculty, 1972–2000), was quick to grab a pad and take dictation when his beloved cat Ketzel leapt onto the clavier one afternoon in his New York apartment. “She put one paw down and very slowly walked down the keyboard, as if she were stalking an invisible mouse,” Cotel told the Johns Hopkins Gazette. The resulting “Piece for Piano, Four Paws,” some 11 bars in all, went on to win a certificate of special mention in a competition for short works sponsored by the Paris New Music Review. The piece made its world premiere at Peabody on Jan. 21, 1998, and the Review arranged for the European premiere of the “compawsition” in Amsterdam, and for other performances in The Hague, Paris, Edinburgh and Capetown. “In 1975, I took second prize in the Schoenberg competition in Amsterdam. Who could have told me that my cat would have a premiere in the same town 25 years later?” said Cotel.


British composer Nicholas Maw, who served on Peabody’s composition faculty from 1998 to 2008, chafed at times against modernism in his efforts to reconnect with the Romantic tradition. “Music has to be able to sing” he once said, and, “there must be harmony, not just chords.” With his opera Sophie’s Choice, based on William Styron’s 1979 novel about a Polish Catholic woman who survived the Holocaust, he accomplished both missions. The work premiered at the Royal Opera in 2002 under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle to sold out audiences. Rattle described it as “an instant classic, a piece that will immediately touch and move people.” Subsequent performances in a new production in Berlin, Vienna, and Washington D.C., also earned praise from sold out audiences. Maw, who wrote the opera’s libretto himself, told The Financial Times in 1999 that Sophie’s Choice was “my way of coming to terms with this damnable century we’re just getting out of, full of achievements, but matched by some of the biggest horrors we’ve seen on the face of the earth.”

Nicholas Maw was known for working on a large scale. He spent 14 years working on his single-movement Odyssey (1987), which came to be known as his magnum opus. At 96 minutes, it was believed at the time to be the longest piece of symphonic music ever written.

Nicholas Maw

Junior Bach alumnus Tariq Al-Sabir (BM ’15, Voice) calls the program “a catalyst for growth, not only in music but in life … it taught me how to connect the music in my head to the music on paper and in the concert hall.”


Launched as a student project in 2006 by undergraduate composition student Kevin Clarke, Peabody’s Junior Bach Program has become a permanent fixture over the past 15 years. The one-on-one mentoring program, which has been led by Peabody faculty member Judah Adashi since 2011, pairs composition students at Peabody with middle schoolers in Baltimore City schools, and culminates each semester in a concert of the young composers’ original music. As Adashi explained it in a 2016 Peabody Magazine story: The young composers “really get creative agency and the chance to see a piece through from the beginning concept all the way to the concert. At the end of the process, they get a score that they were part of creating, and that’s kind of their diploma from our program.” Indeed, the kids’ creativity knows no bounds: A 2012 concert, for example, featured a composition by 8th grader Robert Back that involved playing Tchaikovsky backwards over a hip-hop beat — on a harpsichord.


The fall of 2018 marked a new era in composition at Peabody, when the first crop of undergraduates began their classes in Music for New Media, a four-year bachelor of music program. “There is nothing really like it in a top North American university,” says Thomas Dolby, the music innovator and tech trailblazer who heads the new program. “Many of my students are continuing their training in piano or violin or woodwinds or whatever they play, while simultaneously studying in my class to be composers in the film and TV, game and VR world. That’s a very unique proposition.” Majors in the program take core courses in composition, theory, ear training, sight-reading, and arrangement, with a special emphasis on film scoring and composing for video games, virtual reality, and other media platforms. And they learn to record and mix music in Peabody’s Recording Arts studios. Says Dolby, “It’s very important for the Peabody Conservatory that we offer a variety of career paths that actually meet the needs of the industry.”

Electronic music trailblazer Thomas Dolby was an early MTV icon and earned a Top 5 Billboard hit with “She Blinded Me With Science.” He holds multiple U.S. patents and served as music director for every TED Conference from 2001 to 2012.