The son of a Nevada state unemployment benefits manager and a graphic designer, Whitacre didn't get off to a particularly illustrious start as a musician. The composer made several half-hearted attempts to learn the piano as a child and spent his high school years writing what he describes as "Erasure and Depeche Mode rip-offs" for a pop group in which he played synthesizer and drum machine. He was persuaded to join the chorus at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas when a fellow undergraduate lured him with promises of cute sopranos and an upcoming choir tour to Mexico.
As soon as Whitacre sang bass in Mozart's "Requiem Mass" as part of that ensemble, he became hooked on choral music. He began creating pieces for the university groups, which he used as "laboratories" to develop his skills. At that time, Whitacre also started writing for wind ensembles, which impressed him for their sheer volume. Soon, his music started gaining the notice of vocal and wind music aficionados beyond campus. "He at times made the impression of being a bit of a flake," said Virko Baley, a music professor at UNLV. "But whenever he was really interested in something, he worked extremely hard."
It took Whitacre seven years to complete his undergraduate degree because he kept dropping out of classes. But by the time he enrolled at the Juilliard School for a masters in composition in 1995, the composer had already received commissions and published pieces.
He also cultivated a canny business sense. Unlike many composers with burgeoning careers, Whitacre chose early on to retain copyright control over most of his works and avoid hefty publisher commissions by self-publishing with the aid of a distributor. He entered into a deal with a traditional publisher in 2007 (G. Schirmer) only under terms that would allow him greater copyright control than is typical and was marketing himself online long before other composers understood the power of the Internet. (Today, Whitacre streams all of his works at ericwhitacre.com free and maintains close contact with his fans through social media.)
Focusing at the start of his career on writing for choruses and wind ensembles instead of orchestras also proved to be a smart business decision for the composer, who has branched out to symphonic music more recently as his reputation has grown. "A young composer writing a symphony struggles hard to get that symphony played," said the composer John Corigliano, who taught Whitacre at Juilliard. "But Eric wanted to get his music out to people and wrote for bands and choruses where there was a real demand."
Unsurprisingly, Whitacre's enviable commercial success has earned him some detractors. His recent signing with the London-based Storm modeling agency, which counts the pop musicians Lily Allen and Michael Bublé among its talent roster, hasn't improved the composer's reputation in classical music enclaves. Singers and conductors sometimes question his artistic sensibility. "While his music is aesthetically beautiful on the surface, it has all the depth of a Hallmark greeting card," said one New York-based chorus director. "He's like the Deepak Chopra of choral music."
Yet alongside "Glee" and "The Sing Off," Whitacre's efforts are undeniably making a profound impact on the world of ensemble singing. Many welcome the composer's appetite for marrying the rigors of classical music with a populist approach.
"Choirs are typically about the power of the collective, so it's not often that stars emerge," said Ann Meier Baker, president and CEO of Chorus America, a choral service organization. "Eric Whitacre is an unusual exception. He understands the potential of choral music to connect people, and that reaps benefits for all of us who care about the future of the art form."