Jean Berger, composer and conductor, was born in Hamm, Germany, September 27, 1909. The son of Orthodox Jews, he grew up in Alsace-Lorraine and attended the universities of Heidelberg and Vienna. He studied musicology with Egon Wellesz and Heinrich Bessler, and received his PhD in musicology in 1931 from Heidelberg.
After serving briefly as assistant conductor at the Darmstadt Opera (1932-1933), he was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933. He moved to Paris and studied composition and orchestration with Louis Aubert and Pierre Capdevielle. He also conducted Les Compagnons de la Marjolaine, a mixed choir, while in Paris. In 1937, his choral work Le sang des autres won first prize at an international competition in Zurich.
For several years Berger toured Europe and the Near East as pianist and concert accompanist. In Brazil, he was assistant conductor and coach at the Teatro Municipal and also taught for two years at the Conservatorio Brasileiro de Musica in Rio de Janeiro. In 1941, he moved to the United States and he became a citizen in 1943. During the war he served with the U.S. Army and produced foreign language broadcasts for the Office of War Information. In addition, he toured with the USO Camp Shows in all theatres of war. Subsequently, he spent two years as arranger, accompanist, and coach with the CBS and NBC networks.
He served on the faculty of Middlebury College in Vermont beginning in 1948 and then moved to the University of Illinois as assistant professor of music from 1959-1961. From 1961-1968, he joined the music faculty at the University of Colorado. In 1964 he founded the John Sheppard Music Press in Boulder, and later Denver, Colorado. As a musicologist, he edited several 17th-century works and wrote on the Italian composer Giacomo Perti.
Berger’s compositions have been extensively performed by leading choral and orchestral organizations in Europe and the United States. His choral works constitute the bulk of his compositions, where he avoids an academic style, preferring a pragmatic blend of Franco-German folk music, South American melody and rhythm, and polyphonic modality. Brazilian Psalm (1941) has entered the standard American choral repertory, and it remains Berger’s most popular composition.
Jean Berger died May 28, 2002, in Denver, Colorado.
--University of Colorado at Boulder, University Libraries, American Music Research Center, Guide to the Jean Berger Collection