Composers Datebook®

A Becker premiere in Saint Paul

Composer's Datebook - May 20, 2023


These days composer John J. Becker is almost totally forgotten, but back in the 1930s his name was linked with Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell, and Wallingford Riegger as one of the so-called "American Five" composers of what was dubbed "ultra-modern" music.

From 1928 to 1935, Becker taught at the College of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and briefly assembled a "Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra" to give Midwest premieres of works by Ives and other ultra-modernists. From 1935 to 1941, Becker was the Minnesota State director of the Federal Music Project, one of President Roosevelt's initiatives to provide work for American musicians during the Depression years.

On today's date in 1937, at the old St. Paul Auditorium, Becker conducted the Federal Music Project's Twin Cities Orchestra in a program that included the premiere performance of his own Symphony No. 3, subtitled "Symphonia Brevis."

This "ultra-modern" symphony was met with an "ultra-conservative" review in The Saint Paul Pioneer Press, whose critic wrote: "It consists of spasmodic little excursions… percussive barrages… ideas that seem to run out before the score comes to a close, with the consequent suggestion of that spurious vitality exhibited by decapitated fowls."

Decades later, three years before his death in 1961, Becker, along with a few other surviving members of the "American Five," was invited to take a bow from the stage of Carnegie Hall at one of Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic concerts which featured his "Sinfonia Brevis."

Music Played in Today's Program

John J. Becker (1886 - 1961) Sinfonia Brevis (Symphony No. 3) Louisville Orchestra; Jorge Mester, conductor. Albany TROY-027

On This Day


  • 1804 - Russian composer Mikail Glinka ((Gregorian date: June 1);

  • 1943 - American composer Tison Street, in Boston;


  • 1896 - German pianist and composer, Clara Wieck Schumann, age 76, in Frankfurt;

  • 1995 - American composer Ulysses Kay, in Englewood, N.J.;


  • 1914 - Miaskovsky: Symphony No. 1, in Pavlovsk (Julian date: June 2);

  • 1937 - John J. Becker: Symphony No. 3 ("Symphonia Brevis"), at the Saint Paul Auditorium by the Twin Cities Civic (Federal Music Project, Minnesota) Orchestra, with the composer conducting;

  • 1948 - Milhaud: Symphony No.4, in Paris, composer conducting;

  • 1950 - Dallapiccola: opera "Il prigionero" (The Prisoner)(first staged production), in Florence at the Teatro Comunale; The opera has been premiered in a concert performance in Turin on December 1, 1949;

  • 1973 - Menotti: Suite for Two Cellos and Piano, in New York, with cellists Gregor Piatigorsky and Leslie Parnas, and pianist Charles Wadsworth;

  • 1974 - Panufnik: "Sinfonia Concertante," in London;

  • 1974 - Sondheim: incidental music for "The Frogs" (after Aristophanes), at the Yale swimming pool;

  • 1977 - Hovhaness: "Rubaiyat" for narrator, accordion, and orchestra, in New York City;

  • 1979 - Tobias Picker: "Romance" for violin and piano, at York College, by Linda Quan (violin) and Aleck Karis (piano);

  • 1989 - Katherine Hoover: "Quintet Da Pacem," for piano quintet, at Alice Tully Hall in New York, by members of the New Jersey Chamber Music Society;


  • 1846 - American premiere of Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 ("Choral") by New York Philharmonic Society at New York's Castle Garden, George Loder, Jr. conducting; It appears that the Society tried unsuccessfully to invite Mendelssohn to attend this festival performance, which they organized to raise funds for "the erection of a suitable edifice for musical purposes" in Manhattan; The next documented performance of Beethoven's Ninth outside of New York was given in Boston on February 5, 1853 by the combined forces of the Handel and Haydn Society plus the Germania Society; Other 19 th century regional premieres of Beethoven Ninth occurred in New Haven (Dec. 10, 1870), Columbus (Dec. 13, 1870), Chicago (Dec. 17, 1870), Philadelphia (April 27, 1874), Milwaukee (Oct. 22, 1878), Baltimore (May 3, 1884) and Pittsburgh (May 25, 1889);

  • 1943 - The U.S. Marine Band performs a special wartime concert on the White House South Lawn for President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill; Despite a steady rain, Roosevelt and Churchill stayed throughout and sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" with the band at the conclusion.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®