Robert Starer was born in Vienna. At the age of four he began piano studies and continued them at the Vienna State Academy in 1937. Following the 1938 plebiscite in which Austria voted for annexation to Germany as part of the Third Reich, Starer went to Palestine, where he studied at the Jerusalem Conservatory (1939–43). During the Second World War he served in the British Royal Air Force (1943–46), often touring as a pianist. In 1947 he was awarded a scholarship to study composition with Frederick Jacobi at the Juilliard School, in New York, receiving a postgraduate diploma in 1949. In the summer of 1948 he studied with Aaron Copland at the Berkshire Music Center.
From 1949 to 1974, Starer—who became an American citizen in 1957—taught at Juilliard, and from 1963 to 1991 he was on the faculty of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he was named a distinguished professor in 1986. He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994, and he was awarded the Medal of Honor for Science and Art by the president of Austria in 1995, an honorary doctorate by the State University of New York in 1996, and a presidential citation by the National Federation of Music Clubs in 1997.
Starer’s early compositional style reflected his training at the Jerusalem Conservatory. “In the Jerusalem in which I spent my formative years,” Starer wrote, “there was much interest in blending Western, that is, European, music with the music of the Near East. Joseph Tal . . . insisted that I learn to play the oud, an Arabic ancestor of the European lute, with a Jewish musician from Baghdad, a man who had never learned to transcribe his improvised music, which I then had to do.” In the United States, Starer’s lyrical, strongly rhythmic idiom became more dissonant under the influence of jazz and the avant-garde movement of the 1960s, and between 1963 and 1967 he published four serial works.
Starer’s large output includes works in most genres, large and small. His stage works include the three-act opera Pantagleize after Michel de Ghelderode’s play; and The Last Lover, a musical morality play with text by the distinguished American novelist Gail Godwin, Starer’s frequent collaborator from 1972 to the end of his life. He also composed the music for several ballets—four commissioned by Martha Graham—The Story of Esther for the choreographer Anna Sokolow (1960), and The Dybbuk for Herbert Ross (also 1960).
Starer’s orchestral works have been performed by major orchestras in the United States and abroad, under conductors including Mitropoulos, Bernstein, Steinberg, Leinsdorf, and Mehta. Among his numerous concertos are a violin concerto (1979–80) for Itzhak Perlman, of which Perlman gave the premiere in 1981 and later recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, and a cello concerto written in 1988 for Janos Starker, who recorded it in 1991.
Regarding the Jewish aspects of his work in general, Starer reflected, “While I was never in the employ of a synagogue or a Jewish organization, I have written music of Jewish interest all my life. My Jewishness is sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background….When Martha Graham asked me to write the music for her Samson Agonistes , she said that she had chosen me because she had found Hebrew strength in my music as well as Hebrew suffering.”
His choral works, praised for his setting of biblical texts, whether in Hebrew or English, include such large-scale compositions for soloists, chorus, and orchestra and/or organ as Kohelet (1952; text from Ecclesiastes); Ariel: Visions of Isaiah, commissioned by the Interracial Fellowship Chorus in 1959; the cantata Joseph and His Brothers (1966); Sabbath Eve Service (1967); a commission by New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue, Psalms of Woe and Joy for chorus and piano (1975); and Nishmat adam (The Soul of Man) for narrator chorus and orchestra (1990). “I write differently when I set Hebrew text to music than when I set English to music,” Starer declared. “The rhythm of the two languages is so different. English is a syncopated language (and was so long before jazz), while Hebrew is not.” Interpreters of his vocal music have included Roberta Peters, Leontyne Price, and Phyllis Bryn-Julson. Starer is also the author of Rhythmic Training (New York, 1969); Basic Rhythmic Training (New York, 1986); and an autobiography, Continuo: a Life in Music (New York, 1987), one of the most highly regarded of recent composer memoirs.