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Henry Brant

By Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

I must say at the outset that I knew Henry Brant almost exclusively through his music. Yet I found his musical voice so clear, strong, and compelling that I feel that I knew him in the best possible way.

Born in Canada in 1913 to American parents, Henry Brant began writing music when he was 8 years old. When he was 12, Henry asked his father (a professional violinist who taught at McGill University), “What is modern music?” His father answered, “Nobody knows what it is, but it sounds very crazy. You can’t tell what’s going to happen.” Brant told an interviewer that at that moment he thought, “That’s what I’m going to write. I’m going to write modern music.”

Brant was a student at McGill Conservatory in Montreal and, after moving to New York, attended the Institute of Musical Art (which became the Juilliard School). He also studied privately with George Antheil and Wallingford Riegger.

Henry Brant went on to become that quintessentially American artist—a restless, searching omnivore who forged his unique identity from disparate sources. Charles Ives was an important predecessor—Brant even orchestrated Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2: Concord, Mass., 1840–1860 and conducted the resultant Concord Symphony at Carnegie Hall—but his early work conducting and arranging for radio, jazz orchestras, and Hollywood movies also influenced his later music. As a footnote: Brant was an orchestrator of the Alexander North score for the movie Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor.

About Charles Ives and the influence of his music, Brant has said, “What I got from his music was definite nuts and bolts technical procedures, which I use in my music. In 112 spatial works, I carried out his spatial ideas in different ways which he hadn’t done, and in practical ways, which he never attempted. I’m very sympathetic to his thought, which was, in general terms, a sort of pan-humanistic kind of music—a universal kind of music that included everything.”

Elsewhere, Brant said, “It has never seemed to me that life is a simple matter, and I have always felt that music can reflect everyday experience, with its many complicated events both internal and external. For me, spatial amalgams of highly contrasted musical events, freely associated yet controlled, present opportunities for representing in the concert hall musical equivalents of the incessant bombardment of social and environmental catastrophes which bedevil daily existence.”

Ice Field (2001), the work that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, offers a prime example of Brant’s unique synthesis of styles and techniques in his spatial music. Premiered by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, Ice Field calls for strings, two pianos, two harps, and timpani on the stage; oboes and bassoons in the organ loft, alongside Brant who played the organ in the premiere performance; the brass and a jazz drummer on the first tier; piccolos and clarinets on the second tier; pitched percussion (including bass steel drums) in another location on the second tier; and other percussion on the sides of the main floor.

While Ice Field certainly exemplifies Brant’s belief that “single style music, no matter how experimental or full of variety, could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities, and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit,” the whole eloquently expresses another of Brant’s ideals and that is to speak “more expressively of the human predicament.”

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of hearing the music of Henry Brant, recordings on the Innova label represent a broad range of the music of this unique American master.

His musical voice is still very much with us.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 3, 2008.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters