ALLEN SHAWN (born 1948) grew up in New York City in a literary environment. His mother was a former journalist, and his father, William Shawn, was the editor of the New Yorker Magazine for thirty-five years. His older brother, Wallace Shawn, who eventually became a playwright and actor, was already writing puppet show texts for the two brothers to perform when they were children, productions for which Allen wrote the music. A formative aspect of Shawn’s childhood was that his twin sister, Mary, was autistic, and was sent to live in a home for intellectually disabled children at the age of nine. She was subsequently moved to a larger institution where she still lives.
Shawn began composing small pieces as a ten year old. He asked his parents for piano lessons, and was soon studying with a teacher from the Mannes College of Music, Frances Dillon, who encouraged his composing and introduced him to the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Bartok, Prokofiev and other early twentieth century composers. He was particularly attracted to Bartok and was electrified by Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. He learned the Berg Sonata at the age of fifteen, and it was the piece he found easiest to memorize and most enjoyable to perform. In the summers he studied with piano teacher Emilie Harris, and attended Kinhaven Music Camp, in Weston Vermont, where the camp directors, David and Dorothy Dushkin, gave him opportunities to hear his fledgling chamber and orchestral compositions. When he was seventeen, he conducted the Vermont Philharmonic in one of his orchestra pieces. Attending the Putney School in Vermont, he had a momentous musical experience performing as soloist in Mozart’s C Minor piano concerto, K. 491, with the school orchestra conducted by the School’s remarkable music teacher, Norwood Hinkle.
As well as being an editor, Shawn’s father was a gifted amateur jazz pianist who took the family to night clubs where they heard musical giants Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Mingus live. As a child and teenager, Shawn also benefited from being able to regularly attend chamber music concerts, the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet, in the heyday of George Balanchine’s tenure there. After his years at Putney, Shawn continued his studies at Harvard University, studying composition with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner; he also studied privately with composer Francis Judd Cooke. Following college, he spent two years studying with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, in Paris.
After his return from Paris, Shawn, now financially on his own, began a hard-working life in New York, teaching, playing the piano for dance classes, and working as a theater pianist and musical director. He studied counterpoint privately with Carl Schacter, and composition with composer Peter Pindar Stearns, and then attended the Master’s program at Columbia University, where he studied composition with Jack Beeson and Vladimir Ussachevsky. His Master’s thesis was a one-act chamber opera, “In The Dark”, for two characters and seven musicians, to a libretto by his brother, Wallace, that was performed in the summer of 1976 at the Lenox Art Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. After his graduation from Columbia, Shawn continued to compose concert music, but also wrote incidental music for a number of plays, including productions directed by James Lapine, Joseph Papp, and Wilford Leach at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, The Public theater, and Lincoln Center. During this period, along with teaching, he performed in contemporary music concerts, played the piano in two Broadway shows, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Human Comedy, composed the music for the film, My Dinner With Andre, wrote a score for the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, composed a short musical skit to a text by poet Derek Walcott, and wrote an hour of music for a chamber opera, The Music Teacher, to a libretto by his brother, that was not produced until twenty years later. In 1985 Shawn moved to Bennington, Vermont, and joined the music faculty of Bennington College. He has lived in Vermont and taught at Bennington since that time.
Shawn’s long years as a student initially left him self-conscious about composing and more distant from the urgent need he had felt as a ten year old to express himself musically. He dates his mature music from 1978, the moment when he began reintroducing jazz elements into his musical language, which led to a rekindling of his spontaneity as a composer and the development of his own kind of harmony, lyricism and sense of form, now wedded to much greater sophistication and craftsmanship than he had when he was an untutored teenager. His music from this point on blended his various influences, drawing to varying degrees on Stravinskian transparency and concision, the intense expressivity of the Second Viennese School, and the rhythms and harmonies of jazz. His work list as of 2016 includes five piano sonatas and many additional piano pieces, including several for piano four-hands and two pianos; much chamber music; vocal music; a children’s opera; and a dozen orchestral works including a Symphony, two Piano Concertos, a Violin Concerto, and a Cello Concerto. His recordings include numerous chamber music CDs; three volumes of piano music; his piano concerto performed by Ursula Oppens, with the Albany Symphony, conducted by David Alan Miller; and his chamber opera, The Music Teacher, to a libretto by Wallace Shawn, on Bridge Records. In 1995 Shawn was the recipient of a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2001 he received an Academy Award from the same institution. He remains an active performer as a pianist.
Shawn’s career as a writer began in the 1980s with articles on contemporary music in the Atlantic Monthly. Since then he has written for the New York Review of Books, the Musical Times, New York Times Magazine and the Times Literary Supplement, program notes for Carnegie Hall, liner notes for the string quartets of Leon Kirchner, and four books: Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey, which won the 2003 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award, Wish I Could Be There, Twin and Leonard Bernstein–An American Musician.
Shawn’s music follows no single system. He writes for acoustic instruments, and whenever possible for specific performers. His work is unified by its emotional and visceral directness, and his predilection for a closely argued musical language.
In a review of a 2001 concert devoted to his music at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Richard Dyer, writing in the Boston Globe, called the music “a body of work built to last”, adding that the “overall impression of Shawn’s music is of work that is clearheaded, craftsman-like, nostalgic, tuneful, accessible, yet profoundly subversive; it never sets you down where you think it will. Shawn is always turning signposts into weather vanes, pulling the map out from under you—he never loses his bearings, but he wants the listener to.”
Shawn feels that his work is best described as both personal and objective, the private put into objective form. He has remarked that his music is “much more expressive and outgoing” than he is, and that he feels uncharacteristically “unencumbered, bold and free” when he is composing.
Asked by writer Dennis Bartel, in a Chamber Music Magazine article of December 1997, if his work constituted a kind of “musical autobiography,” Shawn said that it certainly did, but qualified the idea: “ On the one hand, music is music; whatever meanings and emotions it may suggest depend upon the hearer and can’t be translated into words. At the same time there is a quality of existing that music, alone of all the arts, seems to chronicle–the texture and quality of living, of time passing. External events are somehow magically embedded within it, as is, somehow, one’s very progress through life. Music is certainly an unintentional “diary”, but its meanings go way beyond anything we might have intended to put into it, and reveals us in ways we could never plan, and probably can’t even recognize.”