Henry Dixon Cowell

Henry Dixon Cowell (1897-1965) was an inventive and productive American composer, pianist, teacher, and author.

Henry Cowell was born March 11, 1897, in Menlo Park, Calif. A precocious pianist and violinist, he began composing by the age of 8. He received his first systematic training under Charles Seeger at the University of California, prior to Army service in World War I.

During the 1930s Cowell, already established in America as a sort of maverick composer, pursued musicological studies in Europe, meanwhile touring as a pianist-composer. He often caused near-riots with audiences when playing works including "tone clusters"—a term and technique he originated that is used by many avant-garde composers. A tone cluster is produced by placing the fist, full hand, or full forearm over a section of the keyboard, while usually the other hand continues to play normally. Occasionally, Cowell rose and sat a moment on the keyboard. He sometimes delved into the innards of the piano, using fingers or plectra to stroke or pluck strings, playing while standing, his other hand on the keyboard, with pedal effects produced by a foot. Meanwhile, he was experimenting with new effects that could be produced on orchestral instruments. However, he was also composing comparatively simple pieces reflective of his Irish parentage and his love of American folklore.

Cowell became one of the most vocal champions of new and of older, neglected American composers. He founded the New Musical Quarterly, contributed to many musical magazines, and edited American Composers on American Music (1933). He and his wife wrote Charles Ives and His Music. He was confounder and often president or board member of the American Composers Alliance, an organization that made unpublished scores by both noted and younger composers available. Cowell even raised money during the 1930s and 1940s to sponsor recordings featuring the works of younger American composers. He later was a director-member of Composers' Recordings, Inc. Meanwhile, teaching in a number of colleges and universities, he influenced many American and some foreign composers, who have since achieved success.

Cowell conjured a special American musical form of his own in which one will find some of his most significant music, aside from his many symphonies. He called it "hymn and fuguing tune." He was also an early experimenter with electronic instruments, such as the theremin, and pioneered in writing "serious" music for bands. His music, too prolific to list here, covers, often in depth, almost every thinkable musical combination. He was frequently disguisedly conservative in his compositions. For example, his invocation of "Americana" in certain works, except for certain subtle creative techniques employed, could sound "apple-pie American." Yet, especially in later years, traveling the world widely (especially Asia), he could dig deeply into the ancient musical lores of, for example, Iran or Japan, and produce an effective work sounding part Persian or part Japanese, part cosmopolitan-modern. He had set out to shock audiences, especially as a performing pianist-composer; later, he composed intricate, but somehow very accessible, music disturbing to practically no one. Cowell died on December 10, 1965, in Shady, New York.

Cowell once stated: "As a creator of music I contribute my religious, philosophical, and ethical beliefs in terms of creative sound: that sound which flows through the mind of the composer with a concentrated intensity that baffles description, the sound which is the very life of the composer, and which is the sum and substance of his faith and feeling." Virgil Thomson summed up: "Cowell's music covers a wider range in both expression and technic than any other living composer. … Add to this massive production his long and influential career as pedagog, and Cowell's achievement in music becomes impressive indeed. There is no other quite like it. To be fecund and right is given to few."

Further Reading on Henry Dixon Cowell

Information about Cowell is available in John T. Howard, Our Contemporary Composers: American Music in the Twentieth Century (1941); William W. Austin, Music in the Twentieth Century (1966); Peter Yates, Twentieth Century Music (1967); and David Ewen, The World of Twentieth Century Music (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Lichtenwanger, William, The music of Henry Cowell: a descriptive catalog, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Institute for Studies in American Music, Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1986.

Manion, Martha L., Writings about Henry Cowell: an annotated bibliography, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Institute for Studies in American Music, Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1982.

Saylor, Bruce, The writings of Henry Cowell: a descriptive bibliography, Brooklyn: Institute for Studies in American Music, Dept. of Music, School of Performing Arts, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1977.