Deems Taylor: A Biography (review)
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Deems Taylor: A BiographyJames A. PegolottiBoston: Northeastern University Press, 2003410 pages, $40.00

Multiple biographies of some of the great men and women of musical history abound, especially of those who were superstars on the stage or in the pit. Of the countless composers who lived and labored for their art over the last two or three centuries, only a relatively few have had their lives and works documented in a comprehensive way. And fewer yet have had more than one exhaustive biography written in his or her honor. It is certainly a challenge, for example, for an author to write a fifth or sixth biography of Verdi or Wagner in which a new and interesting slant or interpretation on his life and music is imperative.

But it is a special challenge (and a delight, from my own personal experience) for anyone to set out to write the first major biography of a musical luminary who was influential in his day but has little name recognition among the current generation. That is what James A. Pegolotti has done with his engrossing Deems Taylor: A Biography, his first book-length work since his Ph.D. dissertation. While the standard literature contains short biographical sketches of Taylor's life and works, Pegolotti concentrates largely on his own original research, including among many other sources the uncatalogued Deems Taylor Papers at Yale University Music Library. In probing Taylor's life, Pegolotti has left nary a stone unturned. Taylor family journals and extensive interviews with surviving family members and a great number of Taylor's acquaintances and associates provide further rich and telling insights. What emerges is a colorful chronicle of one of the most talented and compelling American personalities of the first half of the twentieth century.

Widely known and respected in the roles of author, editor, critic, and speaker, Taylor received his first popular recognition through his intermission talks during the New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts and later as the on-screen commentator in the Disney film Fantasia. He championed the cause of American music, especially American opera, and eventually became the recipient of the first opera commission ever offered by the Metropolitan Opera—The King's Henchman. Four years later the Met also premiered Peter Ibbetson.

Pegolotti traces Taylor's life chronologically, beginning with his childhood, when he developed an early appreciation for music and reading as well as a distinct artistic flair. He performed in musical groups during his years at New York University, took instruction in music theory and composition, composed music for variety shows, and became a confirmed theatergoer. He was skillful and inventive in these endeavors, and by the time he was thirty he had garnered, if not wealth, considerable praise as well as awards for his compositions.

With his insightful and discerning commentary on social issues, Taylor also [End Page 448] distinguished himself as a writer with the New York Tribune Magazine and later as editor of Musical America. But his crowning journalistic undertaking was as the music critic of the New York World. His music reviews were perceptive and popular and revealed a remarkable gift with words—a new "model for critical writing" (p. 130).

Pegolotti describes in gripping detail Taylor's adventures and misadventures in his relationships with a vast gallery of important luminaries of the day. Although a good deal of self-promotion was unquestionably at the root of many of Taylor's associations, he was never thought to be insincere in his beliefs or the causes he propounded. His longtime efforts to "Americanize" the Metropolitan Opera brought initial success in the form of his two commissioned operas. In addition, his talents in composing other serious music, as well as music for Broadway, were in demand. His music remained conventionally melodic and lyrical, bucking the growing trends in modernism: "From Siren Song in 1913 to his final work in 1960, Three Centuries Suite, Taylor's orchestral music remained consistently within the romantic and impressionistic world" (p. 341). Although he never cared to vary his own musical style with new and fresh ideas, Taylor did eventually soften his view of the modernists in the reviews he wrote...