Arnold Rosner was one of the most unusual and fascinating American composers of his generation. Born in New York City in 1945, he took piano lessons as a boy—as did so many Jewish boys his age—although he did not especially enjoy the routine of practicing. But he did get hooked on classical music. Certain sounds in particular appealed to him—especially juxtapositions of major and minor triads—and before long he was working these sounds into music of his own. His family—fully aware of the remote prospects of success offered by a career in classical music composition—encouraged him to pursue more practical endeavors. So he attended the Bronx High School of Science, whence he graduated at the age of 15, and then New York University with a major in mathematics. But all the while he was composing—sonatas, symphonies, concertos, etc.—not that anyone else was especially interested in hearing the fruits of his labors. His composer-heroes at the time were Alan Hovhaness, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Carl Nielsen, and their influence on his early creative work is readily apparent.

Graduating from NYU before he turned 20, Rosner then spent a year at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, continuing his studies in mathematics. But, no longer able to resist the inner drive to pursue musical composition as his primary activity, he entered the University of Buffalo the following September, with a major in music composition. This was 1966, when the serial approach dominated university music departments, and young composers were often coerced into adopting it, either directly or indirectly. Rosner was adamantly opposed to serialism and refused to embrace it. At Buffalo he was subjected to the tutelage of Leo Smit, Lejaren Hiller, Henri Pousseur, and Allen Sapp, who dismissed his creative efforts with varying degrees of contempt. In describing his educational experience at Buffalo, Rosner later wrote that he “learned almost nothing” from these pedants. While his fellow composition students may have capitulated to the pressure to embrace the style du jour, Rosner stubbornly refused to accept a view of music that violated his most fervently held artistic values. And so, in response, his department rejected the work he had submitted as his dissertation: a large composition for orchestra entitled Perchance to Dream, which has yet to be performed. Realizing that they would never accept the kind of work he considered legitimately meaningful, he gave up the notion of a doctorate in composition, and decided instead to pursue a degree in music theory, with a dissertation—the first ever—on the music of Alan Hovhaness. He completed this successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York.

osner devoted the rest of his life to writing the music that represented his personal aesthetic ideals, supporting himself through academic positions at colleges in and around the New York City area. His most enduring position was as Professor of Music at Kingsborough Community College (of the City University of New York), which he held for thirty years, until his death in 2013.

Although his music attracted little attention and enjoyed very few performances, Rosner persisted nonetheless. Fiercely independent, he shunned any of the institutions or organizations with which he might have aligned himself. Despite spending most of his career in academic settings, he never took advantage of the opportunities open to academic composers. As desperately as he sought acceptance, he would have it only on his own terms. He did little to cultivate performances of his music, so initially his work attracted the attention of only a small number of equally independent-minded musicians and music lovers. As the years passed, his works gained no foothold within the world of professional musicians, and he became increasingly embittered.

As he wrote to a friend in 2009:

My music is plenty obscure now, but when I was writing the [works of the 1960s and 70s] I was so nowhere that I am astonished now that I had the impetus and nerve to keep up doing it. Indeed, as we speak, I am listening to [the recording of my Symphony No. 5], which I wrote with NO prospect of ever hearing it. I do it because I have to do it—that is why I am on this planet.

Deciding simply to bypass the conventional music institutions, he began to produce recordings of his music and make them available to the public. These recordings, where a sizable portion of his output may be heard, have been highly praised by most of the review media, and Rosner has begun to develop a following of committed enthusiasts who recognize the value of his unique voice.

In addition to music, Rosner’s other passions included exotic cooking and playing contract bridge, in which he was a tournament champion.

Performances

Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | February 1, 2020