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Elie Siegmeister, 82; American Composer

March 12, 1991|From Staff and Wire Reports

MANHASSET, N.Y. — Elie Siegmeister, an American composer whose symphonic studies ranged from the speeches of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the folk songs of Woody Guthrie and Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter, died of a brain tumor Sunday.

He was 82 and died here in a hospital near his Long Island home in Great Neck.

A composer and author who studied with such influential musicologists as Wallingford Reigger, Seth Bingham and Nadia Boulanger, Siegmeister's output included operas, symphonies, choral settings and concertos. Most dealt with his political and social concerns.

"American Holiday" came out in 1933 and was one of the first compositions to weave American work songs and street music into a symphonic fabric. Other compositions included "Sunday in Brooklyn" in 1946, "Ozark Set" in 1943 and "Western Suite" in 1945.

The themes of racial equality and pacifism found a place in a series of Siegmeister's choral works and song cycles, beginning with "Created Equal" in 1937 and including "I Had a Dream," based on King's famous speech, and "Faces of War" protesting the Vietnam War.

Born in Manhattan, Siegmeister graduated from Columbia University. When 18, he moved to Paris, where he studied under Boulanger. Returning to New York, he became part of a circle of such young composers as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson hoping to form an American school of music.

During the Depression he toured the United States accumulating popular and folk songs and formed the American Ballad Singers to perform these works. He led the group using selected texts by contemporary American poets who were writing indignantly of the economic discrimination in the country.

In 1940, he and critic Olin Downes published "A Treasury of American Song."

Siegmeister wrote many of his one-act operas in the 1950s, including "Darling Corie," "Miranda and the Dark Young Man" and "The Mermaid in Lock No. 7." In the 1960s his vocal works included "The Plough and the Stars."

Siegmeister taught at Hofstra University in New York from 1966 to 1976 while writing about American music for several publications.

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