Violinist, Composer Arnold Black Dies at 77


Arnold Black
Arnold Black
Photo courtesy of Ruth Black

Arnold Black, a noted violinist and composer, died June 25 at his home in Charlemont, MA. The cause was undetermined, but he had had heart trouble in recent years. He was 77.

Arnold Black, a noted violinist and composer, died June 25 at his home in Charlemont, MA. The cause was undetermined, but he had had heart trouble in recent years. He was 77.

Black was born on May 2, 1923 in Philadelphia. He suffered all his life from cerebral palsy, which restricted mobility in his right side. Despite his disability, Black decided to study the violin, and eventually went on to graduate from The Juilliard School with a major in violin and composition. He played in the Casals Festival and the NBC Symphony and eventually became the Assistant Concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra.

His best known for founding and directing the Mohawk Trail Concerts in Shelburne Falls, Mass., for over thirty years. His wife, Ruth, commented to NewMusicBox, “We always try to do some contemporary music up at Mohawk Trail Concerts…Someone who first appeared on our concert series years ago was William Bolcom, when he was still relatively unknown. We met him 27 years ago when the revival or rediscovery of rags was beginning. We met him at Nonesuch when Teresa Sterne was in charge. Obviously he was very talented. He came up and said, ‘Do you mind if I bring along a young woman whom I’ve been working with?’ She, of course, was Joan Morris [who later was to become Bolcom’s wife].” Arnold Black became a longtime collaborator with Bolcom on many projects. Ruth Black recalled further, “In the days Arny was doing commercials, Bill [Bolcom] would help him out. Bill was asked to write the theme for WQXR in New York, but he was too busy, so Arny took it over and wrote the main theme. Bill came over later and did some of the arrangements” for the thirty or so variations which were broadcast for station identification. Most recently (1999), Black and Bolcom worked together on the film score for John Turturro‘s Illuminata.

Bolcom himself wrote of his friend Black in a letter to NewMusicBox: “He has relatively few concert scores — albeit some quite excellent, like a recent string quartet touring with the St. Petersburg right now — but he was mostly a whiz at classy TV commercials, winning many Clios for them, involving first-class musicians as players and collaborators.

“His other function was, as some of us felt, unofficial mayor of the Upper West Side musical community.  He would (with his wonderful British wife Ruth) put together memorial concerts, fundraisers, etc. when necessary. For 30 years he ran the wonderful Mohawk Trail concerts in western Mass. (we are appearing at the series Aug. 11 and 12 for the 25th time). But mostly he was one of the most loved people any of us knew — it is still hard to believe he would ever be gone, despite a frail body and 77 years.”

Black was composer in residence at the Circle in the Square Theater in the early 1950s, where he worked with the director José Quintero and wrote scores for some acclaimed productions, including Ulysses in Nighttown, based on the James Joyce novel and starring Zero Mostel. He co-wrote, with Eric Bentley, four songs for Bentley’s January 2000 production of Bertolt Brecht‘s Edward II; he also wrote scores for Bentley’s productions of La Ronde, Wansee, Woyzek, Leonce and Lena, and Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule. Other theatre groups for which he composed include the National Shakespeare Company (Oedipus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Trojan Horse) and the Eugene O’Neill Theater (Oblomov). Among his advertising credits are commercials for IBM, Perrier, Estée Lauder, Mobil, and Sunoco. Black collaborated on several films with the noted cartoonist R.O. Blechman, and wrote music for the films River Song, Black Harvest, Empire of Reason, and with Eric Clapton, Peace for Our Time.

His concert pieces include Calliope Overture for the Calliope Renaissance Band; Laments and Dances from the Irish for String Quartet and Two Guitars for the Alexander Quartet; a children’s opera based on Norton Juster‘s novel The Phantom Tollbooth (premiered in 1995 by Opera Delaware); “Three Poems by Richard Wilbur” for cello, piano, and narrator; and a string quartet entitled “My Country, 1998-1999,” which was commissioned by the St. Petersburg Quartet and most recently played by them at the 2000 Spoleto Festival in Charleston.

In addition to his wife of forty-one years, Ruth Black, he is survived by their daughter, Hilary. Two sons, Alexander and Antony, predeceased him in 1988. A memorial concert for Arnold Black is planned for October 25th (5-7 P.M.) at Symphony Space in New York.