THE ODYSSEY OF AN AMERICAN COMPOSER: The Autobiography of Otto Luening by Otto Luening

THE ODYSSEY OF AN AMERICAN COMPOSER: The Autobiography of Otto Luening

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No, 80-year-old composer Otto Luening isn't a household name. But his long, somewhat frustrating career--remembered here in half-engaging, half-wearying detail--intriguingly takes in both the star-studded European excitement over 20th-century music and the hard business of making a living in the U.S. as a non-superstar composer-conductor-teacher. Son of a music-prof who Tolstoyishly moved the family to a Wisconsin farm, Otto grew up both encouraged and discouraged in his music (he composed in secret); and when Papa impulsively left the university to coach a promising tenor in Munich, frail Otto soon followed, his formal education replaced by exposure to the pre-WW I music/art world. He discovered Schoenberg, polished his flute-playing, composed--and was ready to go off on his own at 17 when war brought malnutrition and imminent internment. To Zurich: conservatory study, orchestra work (under R. Strauss), the influence of Busoni, camaraderie with James Joyce, and a stipend from Edith Rockefeller McCormick. . . on condition that Otto relocate to Chicago. And so he did, to find himself ""spiritually and artistically isolated,"" playing in a movie theater, directing a Croatian Choral Society. The next, near-inevitable, step for a composer who must earn: academia. He conducted operas at Rochester's Eastman School, started innovative programs at the U. of Arizona, Bennington (guest lectures from inspiring Carl Sandburg), and Barnard (heading the opera theater that introduced The Medium and The Mother of Us All). And he composed when he could, without gaining much fame or fortune: the opera Evangeline on a Guggenheim, plus an eclectic output of dissonant, regional, even electronic music. As for private life, Luening is rather vague (marriage to a determined singer, divorce, dabblings with mysticism, a hint of compulsive gambling); and there are dull stretches of for-the-record names and places. But most of this is written with laconic humor and plainspoken grace--valuable documentation of what most serious careers in the arts are really like: honorable, unglamorous, uphill virtually all the way.

Pub Date: June 23rd, 1980
Publisher: Scribners