John La Montaine, who died in April at the age of 93, was five years old when he decided he wanted to be a composer. He became a prolific and much-performed one, as well as a member of an exclusive club among American composers: in 1959 he received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Piano Concerto No. 1, In Time of War, which was premiered by the virtuoso Jorge Bolet.
La Montaine graduated from Eastman in 1942, after study with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers, and like many other American composers of the 20th century, with Nadia Boulanger in France. He immediately drew favorable notice for his music; the conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos described his scores as “full of invention, composing talent, and a mature musical mind.”
Shortly after receiving the Pulitzer Prize, La Montaine was commissioned to write the first piece of music specifically for a presidential inauguration; his overture From Sea to Shining Sea opened John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. His Christmas pageant opera The Shephardes Play was televised nationally by ABC on Christmas Eve 1967, and he was commissioned to write an opera, Be Glad Then, America, for the 1976 Bicentennial. Other works were evocative of nature: his Wilderness Journal symphony (1972) used texts from Thoreau, and The Marshes of Glynn, premiered by the Rochester Chamber Orchestra in 1984, was inspired by tape-recorded sounds from the Georgia marshes.
“I don’t want to be stuck in some hole, expected to do a certain thing,” John La Montaine said in a 2003 interview with the NewMusicBox website. “There is not one of my pieces that is like another piece. . . I’ve never spent a lot of time on publicity or anything like that. I just want to write my pieces.”—David Raymond ’81 (MA), ’87E (MA)
Raymond is editorial director at the Eastman School.