The thoroughly original, largely self-taught composer Warren Benson (1924-2005) began his musical life as a percussionist. He was playing professionally by age 14, and became the timpanist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra by age 22. With his performance career well underway, he studied music theory at the University of Michigan (BM 1949, MM 1950). Upon graduating, he received two successive Fulbright grants (two more would come later) to teach in Salonika, Greece, where he set up a co-ed choir at Anatolia College (the first of its kind the country) and developed a bi-lingual music curriculum. Upon his return to the US, in 1953, he accepted a post as composer-in-residence and professor of music at Ithaca College, where he stayed for 14 years. He spent the remainder of his career (1967-1993) as a professor of composition at the Eastman School of Music, where he received numerous awards for his music and his teaching. He had a pioneer spirit in many respects: not only did he start the first co-ed college choir in Greece, he also started the first touring percussion ensemble in the US the moment he started at Ithaca. He later was one of the founding members of the World Association of Symphonic Band and Ensembles (WASBE), an international advocacy group for wind bands. He is particularly remembered for his song cycles and his distinctly original contributions to the wind band literature, including The Leaves Are Falling (1964), The Solitary Dancer (1966), The Passing Bell (1974) and Symphony II-Lost Songs (1983).
The Solitary Dancer is six-and-a-half minutes of simmering energy, unlike anything else in the repertoire. It was commissioned by the Clarence, NY Senior High School Band, directed by Norbert J. Buskey, and contains a dedication to Bill Hug. The score, in a passage both descriptive and promotional, reads:
The Solitary Dancer deals with quiet, poised energy that one may observe in a dancer in repose, alone with her inner music. The work is a study in the economy of resources and sensitivity for wind and percussion colors, and subtle development and recession of instrumental and musical frenzy. It is not surprising to find another perfect jewel for wind from Warren Benson, and this short, succinct work has a quality of understatement that makes it stand apart.
It’s also worth quoting what Carl Fisher, the piece’s publisher, has to say about it (rather than sending you to their poorly-formatted website):
Rarely rising above mezzo piano, even when most of the band is playing, the music of The Solitary Dancer has a unique ability to suggest stillness within purposeful energy. The simple melodic and rhythmic motives from which Benson constructed this amazing and original piece are assembled and re-assembled in a continual tapestry of quiet magic that testifies to the composer’s instrumental mastery. The large percussion functions as a “continuo”, keeping the pace constant (“with quiet excitement throughout”) and adding wonderful touches of light and idiosyncratic color.
When asked to give advice to ambitious young composers, Benson answered:
I tell them to take a look at the repertoire and see what’s not there that is present in life. That thought is one of the reasons why I wrote The Solitary Dancer. There just wasn’t any work that was fast and exciting and quiet. Like when a group of people get together and whisper, there is a lot of intensity and excitement, but it never gets loud. It never goes anywhere in that sense. It may bubble and cook but it never really blows the lid off. There are a lot of situations in life like that—just quiet moments.
That last quote comes from the book Program Notes for Band by Norman Smith. But I was lucky enough to find on the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra’s Blog. You can read up further on Benson and his music at Wikipedia and his extensive, up-to-date website.
The Peabody Wind Ensemble plays: