An extremely diverse composer, Elie Siegmeister sought to specifically develop the American voice in his music, apart from the European tradition, and, in doing so, composed in a wide variety of genres and compositional styles.
Photo: Elie Siegmeister, 1943, newmusicbox.org
Born in Harlem, New York, Siegmeister attended Columbia University at the age of 15 and, upon finishing his degree at the age of 18, went to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris for four years.
After his studies abroad, Siegmeister returned to the United States with a goal to bring music to the American people and turn from European models. He helped found the American Composers Alliance, as well as organized concerts and choruses for the working class. In 1939, he formed the American Ballad Singers, a vocal group devoted to performances of American folk music.
Taking inspiration from Charles Ives, Siegmeister incorporated folk materials into his music. Jazz, blues, and Native American musical influences can also be heard in his pieces. He strongly believed that music and society were closely linked (as can be read in his book Music and Society of 1938) and felt that American music should combine the serious and the popular.
Aside from his purely instrumental works, Siegmeister wrote several operas, which were concerned more with a patriotic message than they were with a complicated compositional style. In 1944, he also published Work and Sing, a collection of American work songs.