Born in New Jersey, Marvin David Levy began studying piano as a young child and studied with the legendary piano pedagogue Carl Friedberg at The Juilliard School. After turning his attention to composition, Levy studied with Philip James at New York University, where he received his B.A., and was then a pupil of the pioneering American composer Otto Luening at Columbia University, receiving his master’s degree in music there in 1956. While a student, Levy was the archivist of the American Opera Society, and later its assistant director, and he also worked as a freelance music critic. His interest in theatrical music—including but not confined to opera—grew during those years. During summers he was an apprentice stage director at music-theater workshops, where he soon directed full productions ranging from My Fair Lady to Carmen.
Also during the 1950s he wrote three one-act operas, whose premieres he also directed: The Tower (1956), a comic biblically based fable for the Santa Fe Opera; Sobota Komachi (1957), based on a 14th-century Japanese Noh play; and Escorial (1958), based on a play by Michel de Ghelderode.
In 1959, Levy’s oratorio For the Time Being, on a text by W. H. Auden, was performed and commercially recorded at Carnegie Hall, narrated by Claude Rains, with vocal soloists Lucine Amara, Maureen Forrester, Reri Grist, and Ezio Flagello. “I find a new young [Benjamin] Britten lurking in you,” wrote Leonard Bernstein to Levy after that performance, “and I think that before you are through you’ll make opera history.” Indeed, Levy did, only a few years later, when the Ford Foundation commissioned him to write an opera for the opening season of the Metropolitan Opera at its new house at Lincoln Center. Mourning Becomes Electra, based on Eugene O’Neill’s modern adaptation and interpretation of the Aeschylus play, premiered at the Met in 1967 and received instant critical acclaim and international attention. Unprecedented for the Met, the opera remained in the repertoire for several seasons. “A tremendous achievement, a remarkable work,” wrote Bernstein to Levy. Notwithstanding his numerous other works and achievements, Mourning Becomes Electra remains Levy’s best-known work. It was restaged by the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1998 in a revised version.
Levy has been the recipient of many honors, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and two Prix de Rome awards. Among his other important works apart from those recorded for the Milken Archive are The Zachary Star, a children’s opera (with both children’s and adult roles), with alternate Christmas and Hanukka versions; a symphony; a piano concerto written for Earl Wild, who premiered it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Solti; Kyros, a dance-poem for chamber orchestra; Trialogus, also performed by the Chicago Symphony; Pascua Florida and The Arrows of Time; and a Passover opera commissioned for an ABC network television broadcast by the Jewish Theological Seminary.