Biography All Music Guide
All Music Guide:
One of the great iconoclasts within modern American music, Canadian-born composer Henry Brant is a radical figure whose work is impossible to classify. Born in Montreal, Brant began composing at the age of eight and studied at McGill University beginning in his 16th year. In 1929, Brant transferred to the Institute of Musical Art, later renamed the Juilliard School, from which he graduated in 1934. Already by that time Brant had written Angels and Devils, a concerto for ten flutes that gained its 21-year-old composer publication in Henry Cowell's periodical, New Music Quarterly. Through the Depression and war years, Brant kept himself afloat through conducting and arranging on radio and working on independent films (he was an orchestrator for Pare Lorentz's unit at the WPA) and for swing dance bands, including that of Benny Goodman. In purely academic terms, Brant's achievements are impressive, as he was awarded two Guggenheim Fellows; the Prix d'Italia; and NEA, Fromm, Koussevitzky, ASCAP, and Ford Foundation grants; and he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1979.
Like his contemporary Elliott Carter, the influence of Charles Ives was decisive for Brant, but Brant utilized completely different aspects of Ives' extensive life work as his point of departure. Stimulated by spatially conceived Ives works, for example The Unanswered Question, Brant began to redistribute his already unusually voiced instrumental groups around the various spaces in which his compositions were performed, starting with Antiphony I (1953). Brant continued along these lines, producing works of gigantic proportions, for example his Orbits (1979), scored for soprano, organ, and 80 trombones.
After 1980, another aspect of Ives' influence opened up new vistas in Brant's work -- the use of collage and quotation. Not limiting himself to the hymn and parlor tunes that Ives loved, Brant culls from his whole experience as a composer -- swing dance music, rock and pop tunes, movie scoring, the long-bearded classical tradition, and even stylistic simulations of his own mentors, such as George Antheil. By the 1990s Brant had managed to find a new audience for his music. His 2001 composition Ice Field won Brant the Pulitzer Prize for music. Brant also garnered much praise for his orchestration of Ives' Concord Sonata (1995), on which he had worked for nearly 30 years.
As of this writing, Henry Brant is 95 and is still writing music. Overall, he has produced an enormous catalog of 300 or so works spanning nine decades. It may take another century to sort out, and fully grasp, this prolific and innovative 20th century composer's output.