Jennifer Elaine Higdon (born December 31, 1962) is an American composer of classical music. She has been a professor of composition at the Curtis Institute of Music since 1994. She has received many awards, including the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Violin Concerto and three Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, in 2010, 2018, and 2020. She was elected a Member of the American Philosophical Society in 2019.
Higdon was born in Brooklyn, New York. She spent the first 10 years of her life in Atlanta, Georgia before moving to Seymour, Tennessee. Her father, Charles Higdon, was a painter and made efforts to expose his children to different types of art. He took them to various exhibitions of new and experimental art that gave her her earliest exposure to art and helped her to form an idea of what art was. She also developed an interest in photography and writing at an early age. Despite her early introduction to art, she received very little exposure to classical music in her home. Instead, her early musical education came from listening to rock and folk music from the 1960s. It was not until high school that she joined concert band, where she began playing percussion. At about the same time, she picked up a flute her mother had bought, and she began teaching herself to play using an old flute method book. She played flute in her high school's concert band and percussion in marching band, but heard little classical music before her college years.
She studied flute performance at Bowling Green State University with Judith Bentley, who encouraged her to explore composition. Because of her lack of formal training at an early age, Higdon struggled to catch up early in her college career. She said of beginning college, "I didn't know any Basic Theory, how to spell a chord, what intervals were, and I had zero keyboard skills. I basically started from the very, very beginning. Most of the people I started school with were far more advanced than I was, and I had an extraordinary amount of catching up to do." Despite these challenges, she established herself as a hard worker and a resilient student, even when she faced discouragement from some professors.
During her time at Bowling Green, she wrote her first composition, a two-minute piece for flute and piano named Night Creatures. Of playing in the university orchestra, she has said: "Because I came to classical music very differently than most people, the newer stuff had more appeal for me than the older." While at Bowling Green, she met Robert Spano, who was teaching a conducting course there and who became one of the champions of Higdon's music in the American orchestral community.
Higdon earned an Artist's Diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with David Loeb and Ned Rorem, and taught virtuoso Hilary Hahn. She continued to demonstrate her fortitude and dedication by persevering despite a few graduate rejection letters. She eventually obtained both a Master of Arts and a PhD in composition from the University of Pennsylvania under the tutelage of George Crumb. She teaches composition at the Curtis Institute where she holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Compositional Studies. She has served as Composer-in-Residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony and the Music Academy of the West.
Higdon lives with her wife, Cheryl Lawson, in Philadelphia. They met in high school.
Work and performances
Higdon has received commissions from major symphonies including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, the National Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, and the Dallas Symphony. Conductors who worked extensively with her include Christoph Eschenbach, Marin Alsop, Leonard Slatkin, and Giancarlo Guerrero.
She wrote her first opera based on Charles Frazier's 1997 novel, Cold Mountain with a libretto by Gene Scheer. It was co-commissioned by The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia and premiered in Santa Fe in 2015.
Her works have been recorded on more than four dozen CDs. Her most popular work is blue cathedral, a one-movement tone poem dealing with the death of her brother from cancer, which premiered in 2000. It has been performed by more than 400 orchestras since.
Compositional style and influence
Jennifer Higdon's musical background has influenced her in many unique ways. Her musical style grew out of her humble beginnings, listening to groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, and many other bands, rather than to classical music. As a result, she has described her own compositional process as "intuitive" and "instinctive", where she favors music that makes sense, rather than writing music that adheres to classical forms and structures. Popular and folk music were not the only early influences on her composition; the mountains and wide open spaces of her Tennessee home have influenced her style, and even helped bond her to George Crumb, who encouraged her to use nature as a muse.
Many of Jennifer Higdon's pieces are considered neoromantic. Harmonically, Higdon's music tends to use tonal structures, but eschews traditional harmonic progressions in favor of more open intervals. Avoiding specific key signatures allows for sudden, surprising harmonic shifts and modulations. Open perfect fifths and parallel fifths can be found in most of her compositions. She also often uses scalar passages to add melodic or harmonic context to the music. Her early background in percussion likely influenced her rhythmic style; her music often features complex, intricate rhythmic passages, even when melodies are lyrical. She also makes use of rhythmic ostinati which give motion to many of her works - especially her more rapid compositions. Some of her rhythmic and melodic repetition could be considered minimalist in nature.
In her vocal and choral works, Higdon works to emulate speech patterns and applies them to writing both the pitch and the rhythm of her melodies. She tries to reflect the mood of the text, which results in melodies that tend to have a more romantic sound. On the occasions where she has set non-English texts, she tends to use both the text and translation in the piece, allowing the piece to more effectively communicate its message.
Structurally, her music reflects the "intuitive" style that she composes by: Her music is decidedly sectional, but tends to have a natural flow - often melodies can carry over bar lines, creating some motivic and sectional ambiguity. Many of her works begin with a sparse orchestration, and build in performing forces as a piece continues, creating variety and interest throughout a given piece of music. Higdon does not intentionally compose with a form in mind, but allows the music to unfold naturally
The League of American Orchestras reported Higdon as one of the most performed living American composers, in 2008. "Higdon's music is lithe and expert", wrote Robert Battey of the Washington Post. "Jennifer Higdon's vivid, attractive works have made her a hot commodity lately," wrote Steve Smith of the New York Times. Of her Concerto for Orchestra, Richard Morrison in The Times (London) stated that "it is rare to witness a big new orchestral piece being acclaimed as Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra was cheered on ... The most impressive aspect is the panache with which a huge orchestra is deployed ... This colourful, ever-changing instrumental panoply is doubtless one reason why the work makes an instant impression ... Higdon's work is traditionally rooted yet imbued with integrity, freshness and a desire to entertain."
Among less favorable assessments, Andrew Clements in the Guardian gave a CD of Higdon's music a minimal one-star rating. He referred to the music as "American contemporary music at its most vacuous, a noisy mishmash". Tom Service, also in the Guardian also criticized Higdon's Concerto For Orchestra. He wrote: "The problem with Higdon's piece ... is that its flamboyant gestures ... function only as surface effects, without creating any real structural momentum." Similarly, though in a more positive review, Raymond Tuttle wrote that "even though the Concerto for Orchestra is not remarkable for its melodic content, there is so much color and brilliance in Higdon's writing ... that few listeners will notice."
Higdon received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters (two awards), the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP. In addition she has received grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Higdon has been a featured composer at festivals including Grand Teton, Tanglewood, Vail, Norfolk, Winnipeg and Cabrillo.
She has won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition three times. The first was in 2010 for her Percussion Concerto. The second was in 2018 for her Viola Concerto. That concerto was part of an album dedicated to her music on the Naxos label, Higdon: All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto, and Oboe Concerto, which also won the 2018 Grammy for Best Classical Compendium. The third was in 2020 for her Harp Concerto.
Higdon won the annual Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Violin Concerto (Lawdon Press), which premiered February 6, 2009, in Indianapolis. The Pulitzer citation called it "a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity". It was commissioned jointly by the Indianapolis Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Baltimore Symphony and the Curtis Institute of Music.
- Cold Mountain (world premiere). Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Jay Hunter Morris, Emily Fons, Robert Pomakov, The Santa Fe Opera. PENTATONE PTC 5186583 (2016)
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Jennifer Higdon has been American composer in residence at the Music Academy of the West this summer.
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