Douglas Moore is best known for his most successful opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe. Inspired by actual events that occurred in 19th-century Colorado, that opera launched the operatic career of American soprano Beverly Sills. Moore was already in his sixties when he wrote Baby Doe, but for three decades he had played a significant role in American musical life. And he served on the music faculty at Columbia University beginning in 1926, and as chairman of the music department from 1940 until 1962.
Moore, born in a Long Island suburb of New York, studied composition at Yale University with Horatio Parker, the founder of Yale’s music department and an American operatic composer in his own right. After graduation, Moore served as a lieutenant in the United States Navy, an experience that provided him new material sources for, and insights into, popular songwriting—an area that had already sparked his interest during his years at Yale. This new parameter manifested itself in a collection of wryly humorous pieces, The Songs My Mother Never Taught Me (1921), written in collaboration with folksinger John Jacob Niles.
In 1919, Moore went to Paris to study with two disciples of the celebrated Belgian composer César Franck: Vincent d’Indy for composition, and the mystic Charles Tournemire for organ. On his return to the United States he studied for a while with Ernest Bloch, and then returned to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. But he remained more interested in Americana, popular operetta styles, and dance tunes than in cultivated contemporary musical developments. That tendency found its echo in works such as his orchestral suite The Pageant of P.T. Barnum (1924) and the symphonic poem Moby Dick (1928).
Moore was drawn to theater—first with incidental music and then moving to stage works. Together with Stephen Vincent Binet, he wrote a school operetta, The Headless Horseman (1936), based on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; and a folk opera, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1938), which Stravinsky is said to have studied while composing The Rake’s Progress. After the Second World War, Moore moved toward more ambitious full-scale operatic projects with the tragic Giants in the Earth (1951), on a story by Ole Edvart Rolvaag, set among Norwegian immigrants in the Dakota Territory—a work that won a Pulitzer Prize. Both with Giants and Baby Doe, Moore gained a reputation as a musical chronicler of the recent American past.