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Francis Thorne

By Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Francis Thorne was an honored composer and performer, and someone who made an enormous difference in our musical world.

Francis received his Bachelor’s Degree in music theory from Yale, where he studied with Paul Hindemith. After college he enlisted in the US Navy and served in World War II. Then, after the war, he worked on Wall Street for 10 years. Meanwhile he was playing jazz piano and caught the attention of Duke Ellington who recommended him to jazz clubs like Upstairs at the Downstairs, where Fran then performed.

In 1959 Fran moved with his family to Italy where he studied composition with David Diamond (who later championed his work). Returning to the U.S. two years later, Francis began to have some special performances: for example, Eugene Ormandy conducted his Elegy for Orchestra with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Thorne’s catalog of works includes many orchestral and chamber works and an opera, Mario the Magician, with a libretto by our own J. D. McClatchy. In Thorne’s “classical” works, jazz often rises to the surface, in a way that illuminates his love for both traditions and his ability to pull seemingly disparate areas together. And his rendition of “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” is almost a “classic” of the genre.

In the 1960s and ’70s major orchestra performances of works by American composers were far from common. Seeing this as a problem, Francis embarked on a new venture made possible by his understanding of business issues as well as the music scene. In 1975, together with conductor, Dennis Russell Davies, Francis Thorne founded the American Composers Orchestra. As the title suggests, the ACO is dedicated to performance of music by American composers. Dennis Davies freqently wrote that, while he is proud to be credited as a co-founder of the ACO, in his words: “it was all Frannie.”

The American Composers Orchestra continues to thrive and enrich our musical world. I know there are composers in this room, myself included, who have benefited greatly from this wonderful idea that Francis Thorne was able to bring to life.

His legacy lives on.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 9, 2017.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters