Ben Weber

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About Ben Weber

Born William Jennings Bryan Weber, "Gentle Ben" (long before there was a like-named television bear) received early piano instruction, and later on, vocal training at De Paul University in Chicago -- after quitting pre-med studies at the University of Illinois. At De Paul he concentrated on music theory, but was otherwise a self-taught composer who took Schoenberg's Six Piano Pieces, Op. 19, as his point of departure. Early Chicago works, including several for his friend, cellist Seymour Barab, were performed by a group of contemporaries including George Perle, one year older, also a De Paul student, and likewise dedicated to tone-row composition. Both, however, were Bergians rather than Schoenbergians (or Webernists); where required, expressivity took precedence over the Second Viennese School's canonical rules. As a composer of vocal music (starting in 1940 with Eight Songs, Op. 6) Weber consistently sought to illuminate poetic meaning, prevailingly sensual as well as sensuous, at a time when "specific verbal brilliancies," in Frank O'Hara's phrase, were the vogue. He created 21 works before moving to NYC in 1945, where Virgil Thomson and Artur Schnabel, among others, employed him as a copyist (Weber also orchestrated the works of other composers, but never taught composition). One of the Chicago collection was his first concerted work, Piece for Oboe and Orchestra, Op. 22. A Sinfonia for cello and orchestra followed in 1945 - 1946, then a ballet for Merce Cunningham, The Pool of Darkness, scored for instrumental sextet in 1949. Weber wrote Two Pieces for String Orchestra in 1950, first performed out-of-doors, but repeated in the concert hall to acclaim. That same year he composed Symphony in Four Movements on Poems of William Blake for baritone and orchestra, one of his most admired works, which Leopold Stokowski introduced and recorded in 1952. Weber wrote two major concert pieces in 1954: a Violin Concerto for Joseph Fuchs, and Prelude and Passacaglia, Op. 42, commissioned by the Louisville Philharmonic. He added Rhapsodie concertante for viola and small orchestra in 1957, and a Piano Concerto in 1961, which the Ford Foundation commissioned for William Masselos, a champion of Weber's since 1946. Dolmen, an Elegy, one of Weber's most enduringly eloquent works, was created for winds and strings in 1964. His last concert work of note was Sinfonia Clarion, Op. 62, for small orchestra in 1973. Chamber and vocal music, however, despite its neglect a generation after his death, lies at the heart of Ben Weber's œuvre. In both genres he perfected rhythmic energy, a common stumbling block for twelve-tone composers, without sacrifice of nuance. He wrote three string quartets (Opp. 12, 35, and 50) over a period of 17 years; sonatas with a variety of titles, sometimes in exotic combinations, the last one Capriccio for Cello and Piano in 1977. There were piano works for one and two hands, as well as accompaniments for vocal music whose texts Weber chose with special care. Copland, Thomson, Cage, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and David Diamond were chiefmost among his collegial admirers. Weber was active in the ISCM and the American Composers Alliance (which published a Bulletin during the 1950s that profiled members in each issue; poet-playwright Frank O'Hara wrote movingly about Weber and his work in 1955, providing valuable insights into the Chicago years). He won two Guggenheim Fellowships (1950, 1953), a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1960; membership in 1971), two Fromm Foundation commissions, and the Thorne Music Award in 1965. In 1979, the year of his death, he wrote a memoir whimsically entitled How I Took 63 Years to Commit Suicide.

St. Louis, MO, United States of America
July 23, 1916

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