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Antheil, George (08 July 1900–12 February 1959), composer and writer, was born Georg Johann Carl Antheil in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of Henry William Antheil, a merchant, and Wilhelmina Huse. Antheil’s parents were German immigrants who had done well enough to be able to afford him an economically secure childhood in Trenton. His musical training included private study in piano with Constantin von Sternberg in Philadelphia and from 1919 to 1921 with ...

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Billings, William (07 October 1746–26 September 1800), composer, singing teacher, and poet, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of William Billings, a shopkeeper, and Elizabeth Clark. Little is known of his early life and education, but he is thought to have attended common school and gained his musical education through attendance at singing schools (class lessons in choral singing). After the death of his father in 1760, Billings was apprenticed to a tanner, a trade he apparently followed off and on. Music, however, was his love and psalm-singing his passion. He began holding singing schools as early as 1769 and earned a high reputation throughout eastern New England as a teacher of choral singing. Billings was much in demand as a vocal teacher, particularly in the 1770s and 1780s, and he continued to teach as occasion permitted until his death....

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Bowles, Paul (30 December 1910–18 November 1999), composer, fiction writer, and translator, was born Paul Frederick Bowles in Jamaica, New York, the son of Claude Dietz Bowles, a dentist from Elmira, and Rena Winnewisser Bowles, a native of Bellows Falls, Vermont. An only child, Bowles hated his father, a martinet who brooked no interference by his wife when it came to child-rearing. Bowles was three when he taught himself to read. A year later he was writing animal stories, recording personal impressions in a series of leather-bound notebooks, and drawing pictures of houses, streets, and imaginary railroad lines. Commanded to play for an hour daily within a fenced back yard with a view only of buildings and sky, Bowles never saw another child until he was five....

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Cook, Will Marion (27 January 1869–20 July 1944), composer and librettist, was born in Washington, D.C., the son of John Hartwell Cook, a professor of law at Howard University, and Marion Isabel Lewis, a sewing instructor. He received classical violin training at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (1884–1887). For approximately the next decade he presumably studied violin and composition with the German violinist Joseph Joachim at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin (1888–1889?), and he continued harmony and counterpoint training under ...

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Engel, Carl (21 July 1883–06 May 1944), composer, editor, and librarian, was born in Paris, France, the son of German parents Joseph C. Engel and Gertrude Seeger. Engel studied music, philosophy, and psychology at the Universities of Strasbourg and Munich. His musical training included individual instruction on the violin and piano and composition with Ludwig Thuille. The Engel family immigrated to the United States in 1905, settling in New York City. Engel quickly affiliated with the city’s young composers and musicians interested in new music and, later, their New Music Society of America, a group dedicated to the performance of American works....

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Fisher, Fred (30 September 1875–14 January 1942), composer and lyricist of popular songs, was born Alfred Breitenbach in Cologne, Germany, the son of Max Breitenbach and Theodora (maiden name unknown). He spent his earliest years in Germany before his family immigrated to the United States, where his parents became citizens. When he reached his teen years, young Alfred’s life was filled with remarkable adventures that were typical of the dime novels of the day. At the age of thirteen he ran away from home to enlist in the German navy. A few years later he joined the French Foreign Legion before immigrating back to America on a cattle boat in 1900. Settling in Chicago and changing his name to Fred Fisher, he learned to play the piano from a black barroom pianist in hopes of becoming a popular songwriter....

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Fry, William Henry (10 August 1813–21 December 1864), composer, journalist, and music critic, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of William Fry, publisher of the National Gazette, and Ann Fleeson. Fry began his musical education by listening to his older brother’s piano lessons. He composed an overture while a student at Mount St. Mary’s School in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and afterward studied theory and composition in Philadelphia with Leopold Meignen, a graduate of the Paris Conservatory. Fry was eager to make his musical mark early, and he composed three more overtures before his twentieth birthday....

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Gilbert, Henry Franklin Belknap (26 September 1868–19 May 1928), composer, essayist, and musician, was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of Benjamin Franklin Gilbert, a bank clerk and musician, and Therese Angeline Gilson, a noted soprano. At the age of ten, inspired by the playing of ...

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Goldman, Richard Franko (07 December 1910–19 January 1980), composer, conductor, and author, was born Richard Henry Maibrunn Goldman in New York City, the son of the famed bandmaster Edwin Franko Goldman and Adelaide Maibrunn Goldman. Richard grew up in a stimulating musical and intellectual environment. He attended Townsend Harris High School, affiliated with the City College of New York for exceptionally gifted children, from which he graduated at age sixteen. He then decided to study music. Clarence Adler taught him piano and composition, and Pietro Floridia, an opera composer, taught him compositional technique by having him copy, note for note, operatic scores of the masters....

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Hopkinson, Francis (02 October 1737–09 May 1791), author, composer, and judge, was born in Philadelphia, the son of Thomas Hopkinson, a lawyer and Pennsylvania councillor, and Mary Johnson. Hopkinson’s father emigrated from England in 1731. Hopkinson matriculated in the first class of the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) in 1751; he graduated in 1757 and, with other members of his class, received an M.A. degree three years later....

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Horst, Louis (12 January 1884–23 January 1964), composer, arranger, dance critic and pedagogue, and publisher, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of German immigrants Conrad Horst, a cornet player, and Corline “Lena” Nickell. Horst’s family traveled to San Francisco, California, in 1893, where Louis studied violin and piano. From about 1900 to 1914 he worked as a pianist in pit orchestras and for silent films. While working at a summer resort he met and subsequently married in 1910 eighteen-year-old Bessie (called Betty) Cunningham. They had no children. In 1911 they went to New York City, where he continued to work as a part-time musician and studied composition and piano, but they returned to San Francisco by 1914....

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Krenek, Ernst (23 August 1900–22 December 1991), composer and librettist, was born Ernst Heinrich Křenek in Vienna, Austria, the son of Ernst Josef Křenek, an officer in the Quartermaster Corps of the Austro-Hungarian army, and Emanuela Josefa Auguste Cizek. At the age of six he began piano lessons with his mother, which continued with one of the teachers when he entered a private school run by the Christian Brothers. By 1908 he had begun writing short piano pieces that his mother notated for him and in 1910 began studying with a teacher at the Kaiser's Music School. By 1916 Krenek had decided to become a composer. Because ...

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Larson, Jonathan (04 February 1960–25 January 1996), composer-lyricist-librettist of Rent, a rock opera inspired by La Bohème, composer-lyricist-librettist of Rent, a rock opera inspired by La Bohème, was born in Mt. Vernon, New York, and raised in suburban White Plains, the second child of Allan S. Larson, a direct-marketing executive, and Nanette Notarius Larson. Both parents loved music and theater; show tunes and folk music were always playing in their home. Both Larson and his sister took piano lessons during elementary school. The boy could play by ear, and his teacher encouraged him to experiment with rhythm, harmony, and setting words. By high school, he was called the “Piano Man” after the enormously popular song of that title by Billy Joel. He also played tuba in the marching band. Active in school and community theater, Larson had major roles in several musicals....

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Loesser, Frank (29 June 1910–28 July 1969), composer and lyricist, was born Francis Henry Loesser in New York City, the son of Henry Loesser, a piano teacher, and Julia Ehrlich, a professional accompanist. His parents were natives of Prussia and Austria, respectively, and the household was culturally and musically sophisticated in the European fashion. Young Frank, however, aggressively resisted his father’s highbrow tastes, dabbling in songwriting and playing the harmonica. He attended a New York City school for gifted children through his high school years, then at age fifteen demonstrated his rebelliousness by getting himself expelled from the City College of New York for failing every subject except gym and English. He entered the workforce, trying various jobs with indifferent success. Among other things, he labored as a city editor for a short-lived New Rochelle, New York, newspaper, as a sketch writer for the Keith vaudeville circuit, as a knit-goods editor for ...

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Johnny Mercer, c. 1946-1948. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0612 DLC).

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Mercer, Johnny (18 November 1909–25 June 1976), popular composer, lyricist, and singer, was born John Herndon Mercer in Savannah, Georgia, the son of George Mercer, an attorney, and Lillian Ciucevich. Throughout his childhood Mercer was fascinated with the popular songs of the day as well as by Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and the blues and spirituals of southern blacks. From 1922 to 1927 he attended Virginia’s Woodbury Forest Preparatory School, where he wrote light verse and songs. Shortly after graduation he pursued a career as an actor and singer in New York. There he married Ginger Meehan, a dancer, in 1931 and soon had two children. While his acting career languished, success as a songwriter came in 1933 when he collaborated with ...

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Cole Porter. Charcoal on paper, 1953, by Soss Efram Melik. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Porter, Cole (09 June 1891–15 October 1964), songwriter, was born in Peru, Indiana, the son of Samuel Fenwick Porter, a druggist and farmer, and Kate Cole. His mother (who added Cole’s middle name, Albert, later) arranged to have one of his songs published when he was eleven. Porter’s education at Worcester Academy, Yale (B.A., 1913), and Harvard’s law and music schools (1914–1915) was financed by his maternal grandfather, James Omar Cole....

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Swift, Kay (19 April 1897–28 January 1993), composer, lyricist, and songwriter, was born Katharine Faulkner Swift in New York City, the daughter of Samuel Swift, a music critic, and Ellen Faulkner Swift, an interior decorator. She began her musical studies at the age of seven, later won a scholarship to the Institute of Musical Arts (now the Juilliard School), and in 1920–1921 attended the New England Conservatory, where she studied piano with Heinrich Gebhard and composition with ...