Elie Siegmeister

Active - 20th Century  |   Born - Jan 15, 1909 in New York, NY  |   Died - Mar 10, 1991 in Manhasset, NY  |  

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Elie Siegmeister was a New York-born composer who was closely identified with folk music and theatrical music, as well as compositions for the concert hall; his movie work was confined to a single feature film, They Came to Cordura (1959). Born in 1909, he studied at Columbia College in New York and later in Paris, and at the Juilliard School in Manhattan. He subsequently taught at Brooklyn College and the New School for Social Research. Siegmeister's musical and ideological/political sensibilities intermingled in a manner that reflected the times in which he was born and came of age -- the political ferment of the mid- to late '20s and the economic upheaval of the Great Depression. A leftist and populist by nature, he was involved with activist, leftist musical and social projects throughout the 1930s and '40s. He had a special fascination with American folk music of all origins, European, African, and Native American. This interest complemented his goal to write music that was accessible to the common people, rather than aiming at Eurocentric concertgoers -- not that Siegmeister didn't write music for the concert hall, but even his orchestral works were distinctly "American" in nature, drawing on folk material for their inspiration and various aspects of their content. He was also quite successful with his 1945 "Western Suite" one of a tiny handful of contemporary works by American composers -- along with George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" -- to enter the repertory of conductor Arturo Toscanini. Siegmeister's biggest stage success was Sing Out, Sweet Land, from 1944, which was very much of a piece with other works of celebratory musical Americana from the period, such as Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" and Earl Robinson's "Ballad for Americans." Siegmeister might have been 20th century American music's answer to Walt Whitman, had the music needed one; he can most easily be grouped with Charles Ives and Aaron Copland as a composer, though he was more successful than the former and never as widely known as the latter.

Siegmeister was too busy as a composer and teacher, and his career too focused on the East Coast, for him ever to have gotten much work in movies, as Copland did on occasion. But Siegmeister did write one film score, for the 1959 Columbia Pictures release They Came to Cordura, starring Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth, and directed by Robert Rossen. The soundtrack, composed by Siegmeister, orchestrated by Arthur Morton, and conducted by Morris Stoloff, bears some resemblance to the work of David Raksin -- especially in the closing bars of the main title theme -- while other parts of the score call to mind Copland with greater dissonance. Morton's orchestrations and Stoloff's conducting tend to flatten out some of the more distinctive sides of Siegmeister's folk-based music, but the power of the music still comes through (expecially in scenes such the one 11 minutes into the film, in which Major Thorn tries to question Pvt. Hetherington about where the motivation for his heroism came from, and, in the very next scene, the horn- and brass-driven material underscores the mounted cavalry charge). Siegmeister never did another movie score, which was a pity, though he was busy enough in his fifth, sixth, and seventh decades that he certainly never seemed lacking for work.