Composers Datebook®

Cowell's "Hymn and Fuguing" tunes

Composer's Datebook - September 10, 2023


The American composer Henry Cowell lived from 1897 to 1965 and wrote thousands of musical works in a wide variety of styles. As a young boy, Cowell lived near San Francisco’s Chinatown, so Asian influences are as likely to crop up in his music as European models. And among Cowell’s aggressively experimental works are piano pieces that employ what he called “tone clusters”—chords played with a fist or forearm. Those pieces piqued the interest of European composers like Bartók and Janáček, but in addition to avant-garde scores, Cowell wrote dozens of conventionally tonal works, often hauntingly beautiful.

In 1941, Cowell discovered a collection of evocative 19th century American hymns titled Southern Harmony. These reminded him of even earlier works by the 18th century American composer William Billings, who liked to write what he called “Fuguing Tunes.” Combining these two influences, Cowell came up with his own series of “Hymns AND Fuguing Tunes” for various combinations of instruments.

Cowell’s Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10 for oboe and strings, for example, was premiered on today’s date in 1955, in Santa Barbara, California, by oboist Bert Gassman and the Pacific Coast Music Festival orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

Music Played in Today's Program

Henry Cowell (1897 - 1965) Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10 Humbert Lucarelli, oboe; Manhattan Chamber Orchestra; Richard Auldon Clark, cond. Koch 7282

On This Day


  • 1714 - Italian opera composer Niccolo Jommelli, in Aversa (near Naples); He was known as "the Italian Gluck";

  • 1866 - Swedish violinist and composer Tor Aulin, in Stockholm;

  • 1875 - Lithuanian composer Mikolajus Ciurlionis, in Varena (Gregorian date: Sept. 22); His birthday is incorrectly listed as Oct. 4 in many reference works;


  • 1680 - Italian composer Marco Uccellini, age c. 77, in Folimpopoli;


  • 1838 - Berlioz: opera, "Benvenuto Cellini," at the Paris Opera;

  • 1950 - Karl Amadeus Hartmann: "Adagio" (Symphony No. 2), by the Southwest German Radio Orchestra, Hans Rosbaud conducting;

  • 1955 - Cowell: "Hymn and Fuguing Tune" No. 10 for oboe and strings, in the Sunken Gardens of the Spanish Court House in Santa Barbara, Calif., by oboist Bert Gassman and the strings of the 3rd Annual Pacific Coast Music Festival orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting;

  • 1971 - Ginastera: opera "Beatrix Cenci" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.;

  • 1989 - Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 4, at a BBC Proms Concert in London's Royal Albert Hall, by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer;

  • 1998 - Joan Tower: "Wild Purple," for solo viola, at Lincoln Center in New York, by Paul Neubauer.

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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.

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