Composers Datebook®

Harbison's "Three City Blocks"

Composer's Datebook - Aug. 2, 2023


The American composer John Harbison was born in 1938, and so, as a young lad, grew up at the tail end of the Golden Age of radio and the big band Era of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, the Dorsey Brothers, and Benny Goodman.

“Over the radio,” writes Harbison, “came sounds played by bands in hotels and ballrooms, now distant memories that seemed to a seventh-grade, small town, late-night listener like the pulse of giant imagined cities.”

Decades later, John Harbison translated those early musical memories into a three-movement composition for a big band orchestra. “These sounds,” he recalled, “layered with real experience of some of their places of origin, magnified, distorted, idealized, and destabilized, came into contact with other sounds, some of recent origin, and resulted in a celebratory, menacing suite I titled Three City Blocks.

The U.S. Air Force Band gave the premiere performance of “Three City Blocks” on today’s date in 1993. And, keeping in the spirit of the old days when every major hotel could boast its own dance band, Harbison’s Three City Blocks premiered at the Hilton Hotel in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Music Played in Today's Program

John Harbison (b. 1938) Three City Blocks New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble; Frank Battisti, conductor. Centaur 2288

On This Day


  • 1891 - English composer Sir Arthur Bliss, in London;

  • 1905 - German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann, in Munich;

  • 1936 - British composer Anthony Payne, in London;


  • 1827 - English-born early American composer James Hewitt, age 57, in Boston;

  • 1945 - Italian opera composer Pietro Mascagni, age 81, in Rome;

  • 1945 - Austrian composer Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek, age 85, in Berlin;

  • 1978 - Mexican composer and conductor Carlos Chavez, age 79, in Mexico City;


  • 1774 - Gluck: opera, "Orphee" (2nd version) in Paris at the Academie Royale; This is the French version of his Italian opera "Orfeo ed Euridice," which had premiered in Vienna in 1762;

  • 1964 - Persichetti: Piano Concerto, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire;

  • 1990 - David Matthews: Romanza for cello and small orchestra (Mstislav Rostropovich, soloist); Patrick Gowers: Suite for solo violin and chamber orchestra (José-Luis Garcia soloist) and Patrick Doyle "The Thistle and the Rose" (soprano Maria McLaughlin soloist), at the ballroom of Buckingham Palace in London, by the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Raymond Leppard; All three works were specially written for a concert celebrating the 90th birthday of HM Queen Elisabeth (aka the Queen Mother);

  • 1993 - John Harbison: "Three City Blocks" for symphonic band, in Fort Smith, Ark., by the U.S. Air Force Band, Lt. Col. Alan Bonner conducting;


  • 1921 - Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, age 48, dies in Naples;

  • 1923 - First festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Salzburg, Austria, offering chamber music by Schönberg, Berg and Bartók; Even though the Berg String Quartet, Op. 3 had premiered it Vienna on April 24, 1911, it was the 1923 Salzburg performance by the Havemann Quartet that established Berg's worldwide reputation in musical circles.

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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®