For someone who came to composing more or less by accident, Sheila Silver has had a remarkable career. The winner of numerous prizes and grants, the woman who once thought—as she told the New York Times— that composition was something women didn’t do has bridged tonality and atonality, incorporated non-Western traditions and ideas into her musical language, and amassed a considerably diverse body of work. Two of Silver’s works, Shirat Sara and To the Spirit Unconquered appear in the Milken Archive of Jewish Music: the American Experience.
It was while studying at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s that Silver meant to ask a professor about the possibility of studying musical analysis and mistakenly said “composition.” In short order, she had won one of the University’s most prestigious prizes and was off to study composition in Europe for two years.
Graduate studies at Brandeis led to a doctorate in music, subsequent studies at Tanglewood, and a teaching position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which she has held since 1979. Among her teachers are some of the twentieth century’s leading composers, including Gyorgy Ligeti, Harold Shapero, and Jacob Druckman.
Shirat Sara (Song of Sarah) is a tone poem based on the biblical character Sarah, with each movement reflecting a different period of her life: her inability to conceive a child, her entreaties to God for intervention, and the joy she experiences at the birth of her son, Isaac. Silver has modeled the piece loosely on the out-of-sync manner in which assembled groups of Jews sometimes pray in sacred spaces. In fact, the piece was inspired by her experience of walking by a Jerusalem yeshiva and hearing a group of men singing a farewell to the Sabbath. Silver explains—and sings the melody—in a video interview.
The piano trio To the Spirit Unconquered is a meditation on the human spirit and its ability to transcend and survive devastating circumstances. Inspired by the writings of Italian poet and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, each of the piece’s four movements reflects different types of concentration camp experiences. Commissioned by the Guild Trio and premiered in 1992, it has been one of her most successful works.
Silver, who is celebrating a birthday today, is currently working on an opera based on Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Enjoy the Spotify playlist below by Curator Jeff Janeczko and be sure to visit
Sheila Silver's profile page to learn more about her music.