22 May 1916
5 September 2003 (aged 87)
For more than five decades, Gordon Binkerd, a sturdy andenergetic man of the Prairie, labored quietly writing music andtending his fertile black earth of trees and flowers. He delighted inmaking things grow. The strong musical forms that sprang from hisordered mind were as organic as plant growth, and as beautiful as thestark Nebraska landscape to which he was born. In discussion about SunSinger, Binkerd's first major orchestral work, Howard Pollack, in hisbook Harvard Composers: Walter Piston and His Students, from ElliottCarter to Frederic Rzewski, found it harder to describe Binkerd'sstyle than to label the music of his contemporaries: "The work'snational ambiance stood in some contrast to Piston's New England, orHarris's Far West, or even Kubik's Midwest, evoking rather Binkerd'snative Northern Plains, with its antiphonal textures and modalmelodies suggesting Lutheran Church music, and in its vigorous rhythmsand repeated snippets, Indian ceremonial music. And though the work'sregionalism bore some resemblance to that other symphonist fromNebraska, Howard Hanson, of whom Binkerd also could be seen assomething of a successor, Binkerd's classical elegance had no room forthe picturesque or sentimental, and his kind of dark, romanticregionalism probably was matched sooner by the novels of Willa Catherthan by the symphonies of Hanson or anyone else."
Gordon Ware Binkerd, the eldest of three sons of Archibald andVerna Jones Binkerd, was born in Lynch, Nebraska on May 22, 1916.Because of his father's work with the Bell Telephone Company Binkerd'sfamily moved frequently throughout his childhood but settled inGregory, South Dakota by his fifteenth birthday. Significantrecognition of Binkerd's talent came during his first year in Gregorywhen he was chosen at a national competition as one of the five bestyoung pianists in America. In 1933,, as the Dust Bowl spread norththrough the Great Plains, the young musician left home to attendDakota Wesleyan College in nearby Mitchell, SD. While the nationbattled the Great Depression, Wesleyan ingeniously transformed itselfinto a beacon of education, attracting prominent faculty withsubstantial salaries partially paid in warrants - Scrip that couldonly be spent as real money in the town of Mitchell. Mr. Binkerdbenefited at this prairie college from associations with musicianssuch as Gail Kubik and Russell Danburg. Kubik, who later became knownfor his arrangements for the weekly national radio broadcasts of theRobert Shaw Chorale in the late 1940's, won the Pulitzer Prize forcomposition in 1952. At Wesleyan Binkerd was also influenced byprominent teachers who nurtured his interest in literature, andpoetry.
Gordon Binkerd matured late as a composer. Though advanced studybegan at the Eastman School of Music in 1940, where his principalteachers were Max Landau and Bernard Rogers, it was not until heentered Harvard College in 1946, following naval service in WW II,that his talent began to ripen. As a candidate for the Ph.D. inmusicology, his absorption of music of the past, with historiansArchibald Davison, Otto Kinkeldey, Willi Apel, and others, provided anhistorical base of knowledge that framed Binkerd's compositionalperspective. During four years at Harvard, Mr. Binkerd's skills wererefined not only as a student of Walter Piston, but as teachingassistant to composer and theorist Irving Fine, who became a personalfriend. It was also at Harvard that Gordon Binkerd broke the habitualresponse, for a pianist, of composing at the piano - a factoraccounting for the organic musical forms that shaped his uniqueAmerican voice.
Though trained as a musicologist, Binkerd left Cambridge in 1949 toaccept an appointment as theorist and composer at the University ofIllinois. As a professor, uninterrupted time to compose came eachsummer as an ASCAP Artist in Residence at the MacDowell Colony inPeterborough, New Hampshire, or at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NewYork. These retreats, where he associated with many of the prominentliterary minds of his day, enriched Binkerd's art song and choralcomposition.
During the mid 1960's, Mr. Binkerd entered into an exclusivecontract for the publication of all his music with Boosey & Hawkes,the New York based publishing house. By then Binkerd had written threesymphonies; a piano sonata; two string quartets; a growing list ofsonatas for wind and string instruments and a large quantity ofchamber, choral and vocal music, which his publisher began to releasein 1965. Six years later, at the age of 55, Binkerd retired fromacademic duties to devote himself fully to writing music. During thenext quarter century Binkerd wrote prodigiously until the onset ofAlzheimer's disease in 1996 brought compositional activity to an end.
Critical acclaim first came in 1955 when Stanley Fletcher,Binkerd's mentor in writing for the piano, recorded his Sonata forPiano in New York. Joseph Block described the work in the JulliardReview, as a "…a very impressive discovery." This first effort for theinstrument of his youth was followed by a number of piano cycles andshorter works in addition to three other sonatas for piano. The FourthPiano Sonata, written thirty-two years after his first, was fittinglypremiered by Mr. Fletcher during a seventieth birthday retrospectiveconcert in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. In the tradition of Bartok andHindemith, Binkerd, mindful of the need to compose repertoire forthose developing their craft, wrote substantially for the youngpianist.
Gordon Binkerd eschewed method in his compositional style eventhough he began to manipulate serial technique in his earliestwriting. Though his first major work, Sonata for Cello and Piano,(192), is thoroughly dodecaphonic, it is not a textbook example of theSchoenbergian system. While working on Symphony No. 1 in 1954, at theMacDowell Colony - a work he dedicated to Mrs. Edward MacDowell -Binkerd suddenly experienced revulsion from the system between thesecond and third movements. From that point on in his career hisreturns to serialism were brief and more casual.
In a review of Symphony No. 1 for High Fidelity, AlfredFrankenstein spoke of Binkerd's creative genius; "… everything aboutthis vividly, grandly shaped score is personal and individual, andwhat is more important, everything is right…" The New York Times'Irving Sablosky also recognized Binkerd's creative spark in his reviewof the composer's Symphony No. 2; "… conceived in big terms andcarried out with breadth of imagination and feeling…Binkerd's symphonyis cast in two movements, the second a slow one spanning more thantwenty minutes, sustained with striking originality and beauty."
Along with Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, John Harbison andothers of Walter Piston's important students, Gordon Binkerd sharedwith his teacher a deep love for the written word. Binkerd's publishedchoral and vocal output alone, numbers well over 160 compositions. In1981 Babette Deutsch recognized Binkerd's literary expertise in thefourth edition of her Poetry Handbook. Indeed, the composer's acumenin painting exquisite text is the hallmark of his choral and vocalwriting. In a review of one of Mr. Binkerd's art songs, Somewhere IHave Never Traveled, Times critic Edward Downes wrote" "The gravebeauty of Mr. Binkerd's soprano solo, grateful for the voice andstrikingly spare in its accompaniment, was touching music." About hismasterpiece choral cycle, To Electra, on poems of Robert Herrick,Richard Cox wrote in the Choral Journal: "because of Binkerd'sextraordinary ear for color, the effect of these pieces far transcendsany possible verbal description, and they must be regarded as amongthe most significant works of the twentieth century."
Beginning in the early 1980's, until his final composition in 1996,Gordon Binkerd published forty works, mostly choral and vocal pieces,two piano cycles and his third and fourth piano sonatas throughSamizdat Press, his self-publishing enterprise. These compositions,which comprise the composer's last period, made greater use of folkmaterial and were an attempt to compose in a more accessible stylethat reflected his Welsh heritage.
Gordon Binkerd was the first professor at the University ofIllinois to become a member of its Center for Advanced Study. Hebecame a Guggenheim fellow in 1959, and in 1964 received an award fromthe National Institute of Arts and Letters. Commissions for largerworks came from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis SymphonyOrchestra, the University of Illinois, South Dakota State University,the Fromm and Ford Foundations and, in 1973, from the McKim Fund ofthe Library of Congress. In 1987 Dakota Wesleyan University honoredBinkerd as its Alumnus of the Year and in 1996 DWU awarded an HonoraryDoctorate of Fine Arts.
A member of ASCAP, Binkerd's music is published by Boosey & Hawkes,Samizdat Publications, Associated Music, H.W. Gray, Highgate Press,and C.F. Peters.
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