Jan Meyerowitz

Jan Meyerowitz was born Hans Hermann M. in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland).

After going to Berlin in 1927 he studied music in Berlin with Walter Gmeindl and Alexander Zemlinsky. When the Nazi party assumed control of Germany in 1933, Meyerowitz went to Rome, where he studied composition with Ottorino Respighi and Alfredo Casella and conducting with Bernardino Molinari. After the first concert of his music in Rome, the Italian composer-critic Mario Labroca observed that his compositions are “in a chromatic style like Berg’s, but they nonetheless present an evident melodic definition that clearly excludes atonality.” Meyerowitz took up residence in Belgium in 1938, but when the Second World War commenced, he went to southern France where he acquired friends in the Resistance and survived underground much of the time. In Marseilles he was hidden from the Germans with the help of the French singer Marguerite Fricker, whom he married after the war. Upon the liberation of Paris in 1944, several important French musicians—such as Jean-Pierre Rampal, Yvonne Loriod, and Yvon Le Marc’ Hadour—performed his works there in radio broadcasts and concerts.

In 1946, about a year after the American and British liberation of France from German occupation, Meyerowitz immigrated to the United States, where he became an assistant to Boris Goldovsky at the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood. He later joined the music faculty of Brooklyn College, after which he taught at City College of New York (C.C.N.Y.), soon establishing himself in America as a composer. His second opera, The Barrier (1949), with a libretto by Langston Hughes—based on Hughes’s play about racial tensions in the South, The Mulatto—was premiered in 1950 at Columbia University. It was revived at several Italian opera houses during the 1970s and at the Darmstadt Staatsoper in 1996. In 1956 Meyerowitz was awarded the first of two Guggenheim fellowships, and that same year he completed his opera Esther, also with a libretto by Hughes, which was commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation for the eighth Festival of Contemporary Arts held at the University of Illinois (1957). Other collaborations with Hughes included a cantata, The Five Foolish Virgins; and The Story of Ruth, for coloratura soprano and piano. Among Meyerowitz’s other operas are Eastward in Eden, with a libretto by Dorothy Gardner; Bad Boys in School, a one-act “opera farce” after Nestroy; Simoon, with a libretto by P. J. Stephens after a Strindberg play; Godfather Death, also with a Stephens libretto; and Winterballade, apparently his last opera, after the play by Gerhart Hauptmann. His other nonoperatic vocal works include a Mass setting, cantatas, song cycles, and individual songs on poetry of e. e. cummings, Robert Herrick, Keats, Rimbaud, and many others. His instrumental catalogue includes a flute concerto; shorter orchestral pieces; a band piece; piano, organ and chamber music, and a string quartet

In 1957, Marks Editor-in-Chief Felix Greissle discussed Meyerowitz’s music in The Musical Quarterly, noting its special importance in an era when musical styles have appeared and changed so rapidly that they bypassed a more natural evolution of style that accompanied important musical developments of previous centuries. “He [Meyerowitz] has decided for himself,” Greissle wrote, “to take up and expand where recent tradition has left us with a near vacuum . . . . His compositions reveal a full command of all the paraphernalia of the superior artisan, such as well-wrought themes, perfect interrelation between melody and harmony, consummately developed climaxes, and logically built and strongly contrasting forms.” In general, his music was perceived in both late Romantic and expressionist terms, permeated by intense emotion—often in juxtaposition with more delicate lyricism. But by the late 1960s and 1970s his music fell into neglect in America, and he returned to France after his retirement from City College.
(excerpted from the Milken Archive)