LEE HOIBY, an American composer of operas and songs that balanced unabashed lyricism and careful craftsmanship died (b: 1926); Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Hoiby was a child prodigy who began playing the piano at the age of five. He studied at the University of Wisconsin under notable pianists Gunnary Johansen and Egon Petri. He then became a pupil of Darius Milhaud at Mills College.
Hoiby became influenced by a variety of composers, particularly personalities in the 20th century avant garde, including the Pro Arte String Quartet led by Rudolf Kolisch, son-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg. During his youth, Hoiby played with Harry Partch’s Dadaist ensembles. Following his studies at Mills College, he entered the Curtis Institute of Music where he was mentored in music composition by Gian Carlo Menotti, who introduced Hoiby to opera, and involved him in the Broadway productions of The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street. Though at first he intended to pursue a career as a concert pianist, he eventually became more interested in composing.
Mr. Hoiby’s style – sophisticated yet straightforward, emotional but never sentimental – deepened while remaining constant. During the 1960s and 1970s, as serial composition became the establishment standard, his work was considered unfashionable. But as tonality regained its popularity his music seemed less reactionary than timeless.
Hoiby is best remembered for more than 100 songs, to texts (many selected by his life partner, Mark Shulgasser, who survives him) ranging from Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens to Rilke and Donne. One of his major advocates was Leontyne Price who for more than thirty years sang his songs in her recitals.
He compared composing to archaeology, “It requires patient digging, searching for the treasure…the ability to distinguish between a treasure and the rock next to it and recognizing when you’re digging in the wrong direction. The archaeologist takes a soft brush and brushes away a half-teaspoon at a time. Musically, that would be a few notes, or a chord. Sometimes the brushing reveals an especially lovely thing, buried there for so long.”