David Schiff is a highly respected and accomplished composer and a distinguished writer on music and culture. Born in New York City, he began composing as a child, but he elected to major in English literature during his undergraduate studies at Columbia College (Columbia University). During the 1960s, Columbia was a major center of new music and exciting new developments, with such important composers on its faculty as Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, pioneers in electronic tape music; Jack Beeson, the celebrated opera composer; and, from the younger generation, Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen, who jointly directed the groundbreaking Group for Contemporary Music, to which Columbia played host. Schiff could not have resisted that influence, and indeed, after earning a master’s degree at Cambridge University in England, he returned to New York to study composition at the Manhattan School of Music, where he worked with John Corigliano (a former student of Luening’s at Columbia) and Ursula Mamlok. Following that, he earned his doctorate in composition at The Juilliard School, where his principal mentor was Elliott Carter—widely considered one of the deans of serious American composers. Schiff’s association with Carter led to his first major literary endeavor, a book about his teacher’s work. Published in 1983, The Music of Elliott Carter was the first book-length study of Carter’s challenging music and the various forces behind it, and it brought Carter to the attention of many outside new music circles.
Although he is one of Carter’s most prominent and successful students, Schiff’s music bears little if any resemblance to his teacher’s style and rigorous, intellectual, and nontonal approach. Rather, Schiff has turned, for example, to jazz in a number of pieces, such as Scenes from Adolescence (1987), a chamber work for which Schiff acknowledges a composite debt of influence to Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Sidney Bechet, and especially Charles Mingus; Shtik (1992), for bass trombone and jazz ensemble; Four Sisters (1997), a concerto for violin and orchestra; Low Life, for solo bass trombone and jazz orchestra; and Pepper Pieces, arrangements of songs by Jim Pepper for the jazz violinist Hollis Taylor and string ensemble. Schiff’s interest in jazz as a powerful influence to be tapped for concert music extends beyond his own compositions. His second book, published in 1997, is a study of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue: probably the best-known example of a synergy between jazz and blues on the one hand and classical European traditions on the other.
Jazz has hardly been the exclusive influence on Schiff’s music, nor the only wellspring from which he has drawn. Major American as well as European modernists have also played a major role in shaping his creativity—especially Stravinsky and Bartók, whose impact is felt in many of his pieces.
Schiff’s deep commitment to his Jewish heritage has left its stamp on a number of his works, apart, of course, from the obvious—and still the most famous—example of Gimpel the Fool. One of his most important liturgical works is his Sabbath eve service, Avodat Bet Yisrael (1983), commissioned for the 125th anniversary of Congregation Beth Israel in Schiff’s home city since 1980, Portland, Oregon (a congregation that was founded in 1858, the year before Oregon had become a state). This service is believed to be the first full synagogue service written specifically for the special characteristics of a soprano cantorial voice (in this case, Schiff’s wife, Judith, an invested cantor in the Reform movement). The other significant liturgical works are Hallel (1988), for cantor, choir, and organ; and a setting of the k’dusha (lit., sanctification) liturgy (1991), under that title. He has also written an operatic-dramatic cantata, or chamber opera, Vashti, or the Whole Megillah (1997)—based on the Book of Esther.
Schiff began work on a second full opera, Dubliners, after James Joyce, but when a Broadway show emerged on the same subject, he abandoned his project, and it remains uncompleted. The work he did on it gave rise to several instrumental pieces bearing the shared title Joycesketch. Other significant compositions include Slow Dance (1989), written on a commission from the Oregon Symphony; Stomp (1990); Solus Rex (1992), for bass trombone and chamber ensemble, commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and premiered by bass trombonist David Taylor; Speaking in Drums (1995), a concerto for timpani and string orchestra commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra; Canti di Davide (2001), a concerto for clarinet and orchestra composed for clarinetist David Shifrin; and New York Nocturnes, a piano trio written for Chamber Music Northwest.
Schiff’s music has been performed by many major American orchestras and has been issued on recordings by the Delos, New World, Argo, and Naxos labels. He continues to write, especially about 20th-century music—but often in a wider historical context—and he contributes major articles frequently to The New York Times. He is also a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, where his essays appear regularly.
Schiff has been a professor at Reed College in Portland since 1980, and he has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, ASCAP (the Deems Taylor Award), and League of Composers / ISCM.
By: Neil W. Levin