Robert Ward, Composer


Like moths to the proverbial flame, contemporary American composers have been drawn to famous American plays and novels such as Little Women, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Great Gatsby, but the operas that have resulted have rarely succeeded in capturing the power of the original and generally have slipped into obscurity soon after their much anticipated premieres. A singular exception is Robert Ward’s 1961 opera based on Arthur Miller’s enduring play about the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts: The Crucible.

Not only did the 45-year-old, Cleveland-born composer’s music, set to a libretto by Bernard Stambler, win favorable reviews from the New York critics, it has become, in the decades since, one of the most frequently performed American operas. The consensus of critics and audiences is that Ward and Stambler succeeded in creating that rarest of stage works: a musically compelling setting of a great literary work—in this case, Arthur Miller’s gripping attack on the anti-communist hysteria of the early 1950s that reached its apotheosis in the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which ruined lives and careers in the name of rooting out dangerous ideas.

Although Ward wrote six other operas, none approached the success of The Crucible, which won a Pulitzer Prize and its composer a place in the pantheon of American opera. Thus it was that his home town sought in 1972 to recognize this native son with the Cleveland Arts Prize for Music

Born in 1917, Ward spent his formative years in Cleveland, where he was a boy soprano at church and sang in the madrigal group, as well as Gilbert and Sullivan productions, at John Adams High School. His early experience with religious hymnody was put to use in the final scene of Act I of The Crucible, where the congregation sings in counterpoint to the taunting accusations of Abigail Williams.

The influence of Gershwin is also evident in much of the younger composer’s music. Ward was six in 1924 when Rhapsody in Blue exploded on the nation’s musical consciousness. After graduating in 1939 from the Eastman School of Music, where he studied composition under Bernard Rogers and Howard Hansen, Ward was admitted to Juilliard, where he continued his studies with Frederick Jacobi. Following a stint leading an army band during World War II, Ward was offered a teaching position there.

He spent the decade between 1956 and 1967 in music publishing (as executive vice president and managing editor of Galaxy Music Corporation and Highgate Press), but Ward had already made his mark as a composer with three of his five symphonies, numerous orchestral and chamber works, and, in 1955, his first opera, Pantaloon. Revised and restaged almost 20 years later in 1973 as He Who Gets Slapped, this spunky work earned raves from The New Yorker—and a commission from New York City Opera for what turned out to be The Crucible. Indeed, it was Arthur Miller’s favorable impression of Pantaloon that convinced the playwright that Ward was the man who could set his play to music.

Although he had studied the techniques of 12-tone music, the reigning idiom of the day among “serious” composers, Ward ultimately rejected this approach as “boring” and too restrictive, believing that “you’ve got to write your own music.” He began, he said, with the actual rhythms and inflections of speech. In the end he was vindicated—both by the enthusiastic public and critical reception of his best work and by honorary doctorates from the Peabody Institute, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Duke University, along with many other prestigious awards. In 1967 he was named president of the North Carolina School of the Arts, and in 1979, Mary Duke Biddle Professor of Music at Duke University, a position he held until his retirement in 1989.

—Dennis Dooley

Cleveland Arts Prize
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