Richard Wilson, Composer


When Richard Wilson was 12, he purchased a season ticket to the Cleveland Orchestra. The cost for 24 concerts was $27 for a seat near the top of the balcony in Severance Hall, the orchestra's elegant home. Every Thursday night, the avid young listener caught a ride to the hall with orchestra members who lived near his parents’ home in suburban Euclid. En route, he heard lots of insider gossip. After each concert, he went backstage to collect autographs from guest artists. For the next six years, he renewed his full-season subscription. 

During this period, he studied cello with Cleveland Orchestra principal Ernst Silberstein, piano with master teacher Leonard Shure and theory with Cleveland Music School Settlement director and 1963 Cleveland Arts Prize winner Howard Whittaker. But the strongest influence on his early musical development came from the concerts conducted by Cleveland Orchestra music director George Szell (who was recognized the same year with a posthumous Special Citation for Distinguished Service to the Arts).

In junior high school, Wilson (born in 1941) became interested in chamber music, the milieu he has favored throughout his long creative career. For writing a brief statement defining chamber music, he won a subscription to a Severance chamber hall series. To protest the presentation of rock concerts at his school, he formed a group of classmates who shared his sophisticated taste and listened to chamber music as an alternative. Today, he still hates rock but likes rap, primarily because of his love for words, which he expresses in poetic songs, illuminating program notes and imaginative titles.

After graduating from Euclid High School in 1959, Wilson enrolled in Harvard University as a pre-med student who also took music classes. Although he was accepted into Harvard Medical School, he opted to travel to Europe on a Frank Huntington Beebe fellowship. A visit to his Harvard composition teacher Robert Moevs in Rome resulted in a life-changing decision. When Moevs said it would be a shame for him to waste his talent, Wilson realized he cared more for music than medicine, and so, he went to Rutgers to earn a master’s degree and continue his studies with Moevs, the mentor he regards as his only official composition teacher. Later, however, he received valuable guidance from fellow composers Aaron Copland, Ernst Krenek and Elliott Carter.

In 1966, Wilson joined the faculty at Vassar College, where he teaches composition, harmony and counterpoint. He also maintains an active career as a pianist, performing his own works and a variety of chamber music with accomplished artists. Since 1992, he has served as the American Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence. For 14 years, he gave lectures prior to the orchestra’s concerts at Lincoln Center in New York.

A prolific composer, Wilson has completed more than 100 works in all genres. His music has been awarded prestigious prizes, performed by leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists, and recorded on the Albany, Koch and CRI labels. Writing in a freely atonal harmonic language, he adapts a wide range of historic techniques and makes them his own in a personal style that is lean, lyrical, concise, propulsive and often whimsical. “Wilson’s creative aim is in part a quest for beauty,” wrote music critic Bernard Jacobson in a discerning essay posted on “His work is indeed all of a piece: It is the thoroughness with which it knits together rhythm and texture, melody and harmony, instrumental color and vocal rhetoric that makes a Wilson composition the authentic and compelling experience it is for the listener.”

—Wilma Salisbury

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