Composers Datebook®

Henry Brant, 'Marxist'?

Composers Datebook for September 15, 2020


Today marks the birthday of Henry Brant, born in Montreal in 1913 to American parents. In 1929, Brant returned to New York and studied composition with Wallingford Riegger and George Antheil, exponents of the then-current modernist trends in music.

Brant came of age during the Great Depression, however, and has said back then avant-garde composers were faced with some hard choices. They could stop composing altogether, write for commercial films and radio, or simplify their cutting-edge music to make it more accessible. Satiric music was also an option, and some of Henry Brant’s early works fall into that category.

One 1938 chamber piece by Brant is titled Hommage aux Freres Marx, subtitled Three Faithful Portraits. The portraits in question are of Chico, Groucho, and Harpo, the wildly popular “Marx Brothers” comedy team of the 1930s.

By the 1950s, Brant became fascinated with “spatial music” involving groups of performers positioned at different spots in a concert hall or performing space. Brant became famous for works exploring this option, and his Ice Fields for pipe organ and a symphonic orchestra, scattered at different spots around the concert hall, won for its 88-year old composer the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2002.

Music Played in Today's Program

Henry Brant (1913-2008) Hommage aux Frères Marx (Three Faithful Portraits) Boston Musica Viva Newport 85588

On This Day


  • 1863 - American composer and teacher, Horatio William Parker, in Auburndale, Mass.; He became chairman of the Yale music department in 1894, where he taught the young Charles Ives;

  • 1890 - Swiss composer Frank Martin, in Geneva;

  • 1913 - American composer Henry Brant, in Montréal, Canada;


  • 1945 - Austrian composer Anton von Webern, age 61, accidentally shot by an American soldier in Mittersill, Austria;


  • 1946 - Cowell: "Hymn and Fuguing Tune" No. 5 (string orchestra arrangement), at the Saratoga Springs Convention Hall, by the Spa Music Festival Orchestra, F. Charles Adler conducting; This music was originally written for 5 voices, and in that form was premiered on April 14, 1946, at Times Hall in New York by the Randolph Singers directed by David Randolph;

  • 1946 - Ives: String Quartet No. 2, at the Yaddo Music Festival in Saratoga, N.Y., by the Walden Quartet (This music was completed in 1913);

  • 2000 - Sallinen: opera "King Lear," by the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki.

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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®