Remembering Ellsworth Milburn

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Ellsworth Milburn 1938-2007
Photo courtesy Shepherd School of Music, Rice University

On May 8, my father called and told me that Ellsworth Milburn, one of my undergraduate composition teachers, had died. Ellsworth taught composition and theory at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music for 25 years before retiring in 2000 to compose in northeastern Pennsylvania. (He didn’t like Houston’s suffocating heat and humidity.) Many of the details of his life are found in the obituaries at the Rice University and Houston Chronicle websites. I will share my reflections on what Ellsworth has meant to me as a composer and a composition teacher. Driving out to one of the colleges I teach at in the Milwaukee area to turn in end-of-semester grades, I had the opportunity to think about how much Ellsworth meant to me. Despite only studying two years with him, he left an indelible mark on my identity as a composer and composition teacher.

Ellsworth’s background always intrigued me. It wasn’t the same as other composers. After all, how many composers have played for the great comedy troupe Second City? Humor, like the entire spectrum of emotions, was allowed to co-exist with the technical precision of his work. That is, technique alone did not make a piece of music. This may seem self-evident today, but given the time that Ellsworth came of age, the mere whiff of emotional expression could consign a composer to compositional purgatory. Instead of clinging dogmatically to axiomatic composition, Ellsworth dared to let his humanity shine through his compositions. This is the greatest lesson I learned from him: allow yourself to express any emotion, but do it with technical excellence. This is the lesson I most want to pass on to my students.

Technique was of paramount importance to Ellsworth. Once, while I was writing a short set of piano preludes, he commented on an octave I had written between the two hands. He seized on it and made me defend its presence. He, of course had nothing against octaves personally (as he would have joked), but it diminished the independence of the parts. After I gave my defense of the offending interval, he granted me that yes, in this particular instance the offense was not so great and may even be useful. Instead of thinking that I had won this battle, I thought: this guy’s got incredible eyes and ears and is watching you like an eagle, so make damn sure the technique is in the pocket. I like to think it has been ever since.

Of course, for Ellsworth, technique was only at the service of the expressive quality of music. He made a pronounced distinction between the music he respected (usually highly technical) and the music he liked (music that combined great technical control with expression). In the case of the former, it seemed that he was trying to find ways to integrate the admired technical elements into his own work. Once absorbed, he would write emotionally charged and moving music with the strength and precision of excellent technical execution.

Another great lesson I learned from him was that music shouldn’t shy away from expressing the full range of human emotions. His works appealed to me unlike so many other contemporary works in that they conveyed humor, passion, tenderness, anger and many more emotions. Not that he wore his heart on his sleeve as a composer. His music to me is more analogous to that of Brahms, one of his favorite composers. The emotional intensity is draped in rare technical and formal elegance.

During my doctoral studies I lost touch with Ellsworth. A couple of years ago he and I both had pieces on a conference in North Carolina. I looked forward to reconnecting with him and hearing his music again. At the time, he was recovering from a bout with lung cancer and was in weak condition. He missed most of the concerts but ginned up the energy to come hear my piece. After the concert he congratulated me, beaming like a proud father. He gave me the greatest compliment when he said that I had developed my own voice and was writing gripping music. Hearing high praise from one of my most important teachers was the greatest compliment I could have received and I will treasure this memory. We exchanged a few emails in recent years and I sent him a disc of some of my work. He was complimentary and encouraging, urging me on in my career. He gave me courage to continue on despite setbacks and disappointments, something that I, as a teacher, need to remember to give my students.

Music is the rare art that fully engages every element of our humanity, from intellect to spirit, from soul to body. Few composers write music that touch all of these but Ellsworth Milburn was one of them. I will truly miss him and his compositional voice dearly.

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Composer Keith Carpenter is a lecturer in composition and music theory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He studied composition with Ellsworth Milburn at Rice University in the late 1980s.