Norman Dello Joio, who passed away last week at the age of 95, is one of those artists whose craft was so complete that one must wonder why here in the first decade of the 21st Century we know so little about him. There was a time when his name must have been fairly common in the press and the nation’s concert halls. He emerged at mid-20th Century as one of those composers who had the proper skills to apply his art of composition to the emerging world of television. In 1956, he wrote an opera, “The Trial at Rouen” for television, following somewhat the model of Giancarlo Menotti and his immensely successful “Amahl and the Night Visitors”.
The parallel with Menotti might be our first indicator of the problem presented by Dello Joio for, like Menotti, Dello Joio wrote in a conservative style. He jokingly referred to himself as an arch-conservative. This presents a dichotomy. We often hear that the public has no patience with the more severe models of contemporary music, the atonal and aleatoric techniques of the Boulez crowd of take no prisoners modern music. Yet oftentimes the extremists have controlled the publishing of music and even what is programmed in the concert halls. Thus, a music which might be more agreeable to the general public is barely heard or, if heard, is paid little respect by those who moderate the opinions.
Apparently, for a short period of time in the mid to late 50s, a reactionary faction controlled the awarding of the Pulitzer for music and as a result Dello Joio received the prize in 1957 for his piece “Meditations on Ecclesiastes” for string orchestra. Although this might have been the high water mark for Dello Joio, his career by no means floundered. His resume included an Emmy award in 1965 for a TV series, “The Louvre,” on NBC, plus numerous important commissions, not to mention his accomplishments as an able and admired teacher and institutional administrator (Sarah Lawrence, the Mannes College of Music and Boston University, where he was a dean of the School of Fine and Applied Arts).
Although the stir regarding Dello Joio’s passing came far from rivaling this week’s earthquake in Southern California, we are reminded that a great deal of interesting, entertaining and important music has been written in the past 50-60 years which, for right or wrong, has never had the public it deserves. On this week’s edition of Alternate Routes (Friday night at 10), I will feature several compositions by Norman Dello Joio, including movements he wrote to the topic of Joan of Arc (“Daily, for ages, she has challenged men to have her courage.” [Dello Joio in 1956]) and some of his music for two pianos.