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Norman Dello Joio

By David Del Tredici

Norman Dello Joio was well-named—“gioia” being the Italian word for joy!—and certainly Norman, with his many exuberant compositions, brought much joyful music into our world.

His work was widely celebrated, with honors galore: a Pulitzer Prize, two New York Critics Circle Awards, and an Emmy—to mention but a few.

Norman’s musical output was extraordinary—much performed and well-documented in recordings. I learned this acutely well, typically finding his name right before my own in record catalogues and in LP/CD bins (back when there were record stores!).

It was extraordinary, too, that in each year from 1940 to 1984—without missing a one—Norman Dello Joio wrote two, three, or four significant works. His skill extended to all genres with equal effectiveness. But it was perhaps the human voice that inspired him most—especially the massing together of voices. In his catalogue, choral works abound, whether for unaccompanied chorus or for chorus with orchestra, bands, instruments, or piano. But, given the fact that his father was a distinguished vocal coach (of Metropolitan Opera “stars,” no less) and that Norman himself became an organist and choir director at the tender age of 14, is his propensity for choral works really so surprising?

Besides his composing career, Norman was a distinguished educator, having taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the Mannes School of Music, and Boston University. In fact, it was at BU, in the late seventies, that I first got to know Norman personally. I was on the music faculty, while he was dean of the School of Music—a boisterous, irrepressible man, full of energy as well as kindness.

Norman Dello Joio firmly believed that music should be essentially lyrical and must touch the heart. He was suspicious of atonality and of rigid musical systems. His attitude suited me just fine. (Already a recovering atonalist, I was fast becoming a born-again neo-Romantic.) Needless to say, Norman and I got along famously. And, it was at BU that I first heard some of his most beautiful works: the Pulitzer-winning orchestral piece Meditations on Ecclesiastes, and the vocal work The Lamentation of Saul.

I last saw Norman in the mid-nineties at his East Hampton home with his lovely wife Barbara. (I was living nearby in Sag Harbor.) He was no longer so boisterous, but was still full of warmth and appreciative recollection. His career—so complete, varied and full of creative flowering—seemed to please him, as well it should.

Although Norman Dello Joio is no longer with us, his music, with its exhilarating celebration of the human spirit, lives on—joyously!

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2009.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters