Classical Composer, Bowdoin Professor Elliott Schwartz Dies at 80

Dec 9, 2016

Pioneering classical composer Elliott Schwartz has died.

A professor of music at Bowdoin College in Brunswick for 43 years, Schwartz’s work has been performed by symphony orchestras and chamber groups around the country, and has been made part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress.

Five years ago, the Portland Symphony Orchestra commissioned a piece called “Diamond Jubilee” to commemorate Schwartz’s 75th birthday. In an interview with Maine Public Radio at the time, Schwartz looked back on his long career in music, which he said was not his original calling.

“My father was a physician, his two brothers were both doctors and my mother’s brother was a doctor,” he said. “I was under enormous family pressure to go to medical school, and I was a chemistry major in college and I think I fooled them all by failing organic chemistry in my junior year.”

But Scwhartz said his move to the graduate school of music was not just a fluke. He had started piano lessons as a child of 7 or 8, and had progressed into his teens.

“I was a very good concert-level pianist when I was about 15, and then when I stopped practicing and started having these fantasies about medical school, the piano playing start going down,” he said. “But I was delighted to actually take up music as a full-time career.”

Schwartz started teaching at Bowdoin in 1964 at the age of 28.

“My teaching was very influential upon my composing,” he said. “Various sorts of experimental ideas, techniques which I had read about and had been exposed to by going to other concerts, which of course I taught my students about, they seemed so tempting that I was obviously led into trying them myself.”

That led to his interest in electronic music, a subject on which he would write a book and explore in his own work through experimentation with synthesizers and tape decks. But he confessed that with the arrival of the digital age, he began to move away from electronic music.

“Once computers got into the game I became bored because I’m a computer dunce, and I also found the sounds not as interesting as the ones I had made with my old-fashioned technique. I’m sure there are thousands of composers out there who would disagree with that last statement,” he said. “I’ve also discovered aspects of chance music and improvisatory music, music as a branch of theater in which the performers move and speak. They may whisper. They move beyond whatever it was they were trained to do as performing musicians. All of that interested me very much but I think it all had to do with my teaching.”

“I think Elliott Schwartz, as Maine composers go, is probably the granddaddy of them all — for the current generation in any case,” says Allan Kozinn, a former New York Times music critic who now reviews classical music for the Portland Press Herald. “Most composers I’ve run into in Maine have studied with him. They all seem to have passed through his teaching studio at one point or another, and they also all speak very fondly of him, so his influence on the current generation of Maine composers is huge.”

Elliott Schwartz died Wednesday. He was 80 years old.