John W. Downey (1927-2004) - contemporary classical composer, conductor, pianist and educator - has earned an international reputation, having his works performed around the world, extensively in Western and Eastern Europe, South America, Australia, Africa, the Middle East, Israel, Asia, Mexico and Canada, as well as throughout the United States.
A native of Chicago, Downey earned a Bachelor of Music degree from DePaul University and a Master of Music from the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University, while working at night as a jazz pianist. Downey was later awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study with his mentors Honegger, Milhaud and Boulanger in Paris where he earned a Prix de Composition from the Paris Conservatoire National de Musique and a Ph.D.(Docteur es Lettres) from the University of Paris Sorbonne. Given the honorable title of “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” for his scholarly achievements, Downey was knighted by the French government in 1980.
Downey inspired students of music, composition and theory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 35 years, before retiring in 1998 as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Music. He was Founder and Director of the Wisconsin Contemporary Music Forum as well as Director of Theory for the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Downey has said, “I teach because I truly believe that I have an obligation to pass on to future generations the knowledge which I have been privileged to attain.”
Downey’s music is characterized by concern for organic structure evolving in free-flowing sections (identified as “facets”), which are imbued with what he called “undercurrent jazz”, and contain a rich harmonic palette and a strong feeling for instrumental color. In quoting from the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, “Downey frequently used modified serial procedures to achieve pitch coherence and large-scale harmonic relationships in his music; motivic development, sometimes polyphonically layered, in conjunction with timbral identities or tumbrel mixtures, further contribute to the overall structure. A number of compositions (for example, the Cello Sonata and the String Quartet No. 2) employ transformations of bell sonorities”. His output encompasses music for a variety of media, from chamber music and symphonic works, to electronic tape with light sculpturing and partially controlled improvisation as well as computer-generated sounds.
Downey has been the recipient of many prestigious honors and commissions, some of which are from the National Endowment for the Arts, Ford Foundation, ASCAP, Copley Foundation, Millay Colony, Moebius Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Hartt School of Music, Rutgers University, Butler University, University of Wisconsin, Bennington College, Lawrence University, Fine Arts Quartet, Woodwind Arts Quartet, Milwaukee Symphony, Wisconsin Arts Board, Milwaukee Youth Symphony, MacDowell Club of Milwaukee and Wisconsin String Academy. His recording Agort was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. In 1990, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters bestowed upon Downey the Walter Heinrichsen Award. Author of La Musique populaire dans l’Oeuvre de Bela Bartok, Downey is listed in Who’s Who in America, the International Who’s Who in Music, Dictionary of International Biography, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, and The New Grove Dictionary of American Music.
His compositions have been recorded on Orion Records, Composers’ Recordings, Inc., Cala Records of London and New York, the Gasparo label, Chandos Records of England and Heritage Records. His music is published primarily by Theodore Presser Company and C.F. Peters in the US, and Gérard Billaudot in Paris, France.
In the late eighties, Downey was a featured composer at three music festivals held in Rio de Janeiro, Santos, and São Paulo, Brazil. During the 1990 season, he lectured at the Royal Academy of Music in London where his Discourse, one of the compositions recorded on the Cala release, has been performed in the Festival of American Music. In the summer of that year, he was invited by the Board of Directors of the Lvov Philharmonic Orchestra in Ukraine to conduct a program of his works (which included Discourse and Declamations, another composition on the Cala CD,) with their orchestra in Lvov’s historic Philharmonia Hall. He was perhaps the first US composer to have been presented in a concert devoted entirely to the music of a contemporary American living composer in the former Soviet Union since the advent of glasnost. The event has been telecast and radio-broadcast all over Ukraine. Subsequently, one of the orchestral compositions played at the concert was chosen for performance at the First International Festival of Contemporary Music in Kiev, Ukraine.
Another one of the four symphonic works on the Cala release, the Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra, had its world premiere performance in September 1987, at the prestigious Opera House in Sydney, Australia. Gary Karr, the renowned double bass virtuoso, commissioned the work and premiered it with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Geoffrey Simon. Karr and Simon gave its American premiere with the Albany Symphony at the Troy Music Hall in 1989. The work has received further performances by Gary Karr at Hartt College in Connecticut, by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra with Roger Ruggeri as bass soloist.
Jingalodéon, another work on the same CD, has been performed a great number of times. It was commissioned and performed by the Milwaukee Symphony with Kenneth Schermerhorn conducting. James Paul and Paul Polivnik conducted it several times with the Milwaukee Symphony. Gilbert Amy taped it for Radio France with le Nouvel Orchestra Philharmonique de Paris. It has been rebroadcast a number of times throughout France. Mark Starr, Geoffrey Simon and Paul Suskind also conducted this work with various orchestras.
Declamations, the fourth composition on the Cala CD, also received a number of performances. It was premiered by Geoffrey Simon with the Albany Symphony in December 1985. Later, it was conducted by Manuel Prestamo in the United States and South America, and by Roger Boutry in Paris with l’Orchestre de la Garde Républicaine. John Downey conducted it during a tour of Austria, Switzerland and France with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra during the summer of 1987.
Other conductors who have performed John Downey’s music include Izler Solomon, Sergiu Comissiona, Eugene Bigot, Alain Louvier, Pierre-Michel LeConte, Lukas Foss, Margaret Hawkins, Milton Weber, Stanley DeRusha, Margery Deutsch and Zdenek Macal, among others.
Downey often collaborated with his wife of 48 years, Irusha, a linguist, translator, pianist and poet who preceded him in death in 2000. Her poem A Dolphin, set to music by Downey, is one of his most frequently performed compositions. She also performed Adagio Lyrico for two pianos with Downey.
John Downey passed away on December 18th, 2004.
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