Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento is considered America’s preeminent composer of lyric opera. One of the most significant forces in Minnesota’s classical music community for the past 60-plus years, Argento is the Minnesota Orchestra’s composer laureate, the first composer to hold such a position with an American orchestra. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton officially declared August 8, 2016, to be Dominick Argento Day in the state of Minnesota, recognizing Argento as a master composer, revered educator and beloved Minnesotan.
Each year, Argento’s music is performed by opera companies, orchestras and universities worldwide. In October 2017, the Minnesota Orchestra gave three performances of his Valentino Dances, an orchestral suite that Argento extracted from his opera The Dream of Valentino. This performance was one of many given during the 2017-18 season by organizations celebrating the composer’s 90th birthday. Other celebratory events included two of his one-act operas at Carnegie Hall performed by the New York City Opera, a complete concert of his songs at Philadelphia’s Song Fest, and the Minnesota-based Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra's semi-staged production of Argento's opera The Boor.
Born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1927, Argento studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and earned a Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music. He received Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships that allowed him to study in Italy and begin his first full-length opera, Colonel Jonathan the Saint. In 1958 he joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota, where he taught until 1997 and now holds the rank of Regents Professor Emeritus.
The great majority of Argento’s music is vocal, whether in operatic, choral or solo context. Among his major song cycles are Letters from Composers (1968); From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (a 1975 work for which he won a Pulitzer Prize); The Andree Expedition (1983); and Casa Guidi (1983), commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra. The song cycles A Few Words About Chekhov and Walden Pond both premiered in 1996, followed by Miss Manners on Music in 1998.
Since the early 1970s Argento’s operas, which have always found success in the U.S., have been heard with increasing frequency abroad. His operas include Postcard from Morocco (1971), The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe (1976), Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night (1981), Casanova’s Homecoming (1984)—described by Opera News as “a masterpiece,” The Aspern Papers (1988) and The Dream of Valentino (1994). Among Argento’s more recent works are Four Seascapes for chorus and orchestra (2004); Three Sonnets of Petrarch for baritone and piano (2007); Evensong: Of Love and Angels (2008), composed in honor of his late wife Carolyn Bailey and premiered at the National Cathedral of Washington, D.C., in celebration of its 100th anniversary; Cenotaph (2009) for chorus and orchestra, commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association for its 50th anniversary and premiered in March 2009; The Choir Invisible (2010), based on poetry of George Eliot, premiered at the National Cathedral in Washington by the National Cathedral Choir; and Seasons (2014), a setting of text by Minnesota writer Pat Solstad, premiered at Orchestra Hall by the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers with Dale Warland conducting.
In 2002, the Minnesota Orchestra released a CD of Argento’s works on the Reference label under the baton of Eiji Oue, including Casa Guidi, featuring mezzo Frederica von Stade, and Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra, with Burt Hara, then the Orchestra’s principal clarinet. The disc won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, an honor given to a work composed within the last 25 years and released for the first time on recording.
Argento’s book Catalogue Raisonné as Memoir, an autobiographical discussion of his works, was published in 2004.