Quincy Porter was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1897. He was a direct descendant of the theologian, Jonathon Edwards who had been born in East Windsor, Connecticut in 1703. He was ordained in 1727 after studying at Yale and became minister of Northampton Congregational Church in Massachusetts. But he taught Calvinism which brought him into conflict with the church leaders and he was sacked in 1750. He took up missionary work to the Housatonnuck Indians. He wrote Freedom of the Will in which he proclaimed the Calvinistic dogma that man has no freewill to seek or find God.
Porter was a grandson of a Yale Professor and himself went to Yale as did his Connecticut predecessor, Charles Ives. He studied the violin and composition under Horatio Parker (1863 - 1919). Parker's oratorio Hora Novissima of 1893 was the first work by an American composer to be performed at a Three Choirs Festival. Having studied with Josef Rheinberger (1839 - 1901) in Germany, Parker became an organist and wrote a splendid Organ Concerto as well as a very accomplished Symphony.
For his graduation, Porter wrote a Violin Concerto in the style of Brahms. Parker admired Porter's work and Porter always had a profound respect for Parker and, in fact, played in the orchestra in a performance of Parker's last major work AD 1919. The performance was not a success as Parker, who was conducting, was overcome with emotion.
Porter spoke fluent German and had thought of studying in Germany but the war brought an end to that idea. This also affected many other musicians who also abandoned the prospect of studying in Germany. This is why Nadia Boulanger made such a success of being a teacher in Paris. Porter studied with Vincent D'Indy at the Schola Cantoruim in 1920-1. D'Indy was born in Paris in 1851. His parents wanted him to train for the law but upon his sending a composition to Cesar Franck, the Belgian composer agreed to teach him. But it was D'Indy's discovery of Wagner that changed his life and this made his orchestration rich and totally unlike Franck's or the French impressionists.
At the time most composers were influenced by German tradition but the French approach was generally different; to Porter it was very exciting.
On his return from Paris, Porter lived in New York and, like Roger Sessions, he studied in Cleveland with Ernest Bloch who was born in Geneva in 1880. Like Parker, Bloch studied in Munich as well as in Paris in 1903. Bloch was often inspired by Jewish history and culture and, as a result, there is much compassion in his music. The same element of composition is found in Porter's music although it is not expressed with the same power but rather with a reflective tranquil quality that makes his work so distinctive.
Porter played the violin in the Capitol Theatre Orchestra and the viola in the de Ribaupierre String Quartet in which the leader was André de Ribaupierre. This was in his Cleveland days with Bloch. In that area, the quartet included performances of all the Beethoven quartets and first performances including Bloch's First Piano Quintet.
As a teacher, Bloch would give his pupils assignments including the analysis of both a composer's work and creative methods in detail. For Porter, it was to be the motets of Roland de Lassus, a Flemish composer born in 1532 and who died in Munich in 1594. He was regarded as the finest exponent of polyphony. This taught Porter the art of continuity in music, the need for music to move forward. It is a terrible pity that so many composers do not follow his superlative example!
In 1928 Porter received a Guggenheim fellowship award and studied in Paris for three years at the same time that Lennox Berkeley was studying there with Nadia Boulanger. Here Porter wrote or conceived his Ukrainian Suite for string orchestra, his Violin Sonata No 2, his Piano Sonata, Clarinet Quintet, and the Suite for viola alone.
He returned to the USA and went to Vassar in 1932 and during the six years he was there he composed his Symphony No 1 and the Dance in Three Time. In his Boston years, the Boston Symphony Orchestra did not take up any of his work. It was the composer himself who conducted his pieces. While an undergraduate at Yale he had revived the University Orchestra. He conducted many student orchestras and later was a welcome guest conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and New York Symphony Orchestra.
In 1938 he accepted the position of Dean at the New England Conservatory and became director in 1942. This meant boring executive decisions and administrative duties all of which were not in themselves musical. The Symphony No 1 received a measure of success. Koussevitsky, having apparently rejected it, approached Porter for a new work but the composer doubted the conductor's sincerity and did nothing about it; he always had a great satisfaction with it.
In 1946 Porter's father died in New Haven and he himself was called to a professorship at Yale. The ten years there were the most fruitful of his entire career as the burdens of Boston were left behind. In this decade he composed his magnificent Viola Concerto which enjoyed many performances by such performers as William Primrose, Jascha Veissi and Harry Danks. In 1950, Porter composed his String Quartet No 8 and in 1954 won the Pulitzer Prize for his Concerto Concertante for two piano and orchestra.
In the last years of his life he pursued his composition in New Haven where he lived with his wife Lois whom he had married in Cleveland. In the summers they lived in a house on Squam Lake, New Hampshire which Porter's father had built. On a hill in the grounds was 'the hut' where Porter composed. He was a great thinker as, indeed, was Roger Sessions and yet he would not talk about his music, which always has a distinctive stamp although he would say that he always wanted to write something different. Here he wrote his New England Episodes (1958), Harpsichord Concerto (1960) and the Symphony No 2 (1961-2) and his final chamber work, the Oboe Quintet (1966). He died that year in Bethany, Connecticut.
© Copyright - David C F Wright, 1998