John Lessard (1920-2003) was an American composer and music educator noted among peers for his eloquent and dramatic neo-classical works for piano and voice, chamber ensembles, and orchestra, as well as for his playful pieces for mixed percussion ensembles. He was also an accomplished pianist and conductor.
Born John Ayres Lessard in San Francisco on July 3, 1920, he was raised in Palo Alto by parents with Quebec roots, quickly becoming fluent in both French and English. He began piano lessons at the age of five, then trumpet lessons at nine, and two years later joined the San Francisco Civic Symphony Orchestra. He studied piano and theory with Elise Belenky and also worked briefly with the composer Henry Cowell. At sixteen, he was offered a scholarship to study with Arnold Schoenberg, but felt so repelled by his music and the Vienna School outlook that he refused the scholarship and went to study in France. From 1937 to 1940 he was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, Georges Dandelot, Alfred Cortot and Ernst Levy at the École Normale de Musique in Paris, earning a diploma in “Harmonie, Contrepointe et Fugue.” When Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940, he fled to the U.S. along with Boulanger, where he continued his studies with her at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gaining another diploma. However, he was soon drafted into the U.S. Army Signal Corps. In May 1943, he was engaged to Alida White, a voice student and granddaughter of the legendary Beaux-Arts architect Stanford White. He then spent the duration of the war back in Europe with a unit assigned to liaison between American troops and allied French fighters and personnel.
Influenced early on by Igor Stravinsky and the Neo-classic School, Lessard's compositions were primarily neo-classical in style, and typically short in length; he also employed serial techniques, though not dependent on any rigid system. He was also influenced by the work of Debussy and later Webern. With a leg-up from fellow Boulanger student Aaron Copland, he was able to have his first Piano Sonata presented in 1941, winning high praise from composer and music critic Virgil Thomson along with wide public recognition. In the early post-war years he was fortunate to have performances of several of his orchestral works led by Leon Barzin, Leonard Bernstein and Thor Johnson, in New York and elsewhere.
Teaching career and later work
In 1962 he began teaching theory and composition at the newly founded State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he remained until retiring in 1990, all the while continuing to compose on his own. During the period 1964-74 Professor Lessard focused on songs for voice and piano, composing over 35 settings.
Performances of his work were recorded on the CRI, Serenus Records, and Opus One labels, with a long gap of few recordings in the 1970s and 80s. Performers included another friend and Boulanger protégé, the harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe.
In addition to working with Alida in her capacity as an accomplished performer of lieder, Lessard also enjoyed close relations with others in the White family living nearby, often collaborating with the poet Claire Nicolas White, wife of Alida’s brother Robert White, who was a sculptor and educator. The Whites were a Social Register family related to the Wards, Astors, Winthrops, Chanlers, Roosevelts, Rockefellers, and others.
In the early 1970s, Jack and Alida were divorced. On June 12, 1973, he married Stony Brook professor and colleague Sarah Fuller, Ph.D, and resided with her at 15 Scott’s Cove Lane in nearby East Setauket. In 1996, a book written by Lessard’s eldest daughter was published, which, while using pseudonyms, contained devastating implied allegations of past improprieties with his children while intoxicated.
John Lessard died in East Setauket on January 11, 2003, aged 82.
Awards and grants
Lessard received two Guggenheim fellowships (1946, 1953) as well as awards from the Alice M. Ditson Fund (1946) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1952). He was also given the title of Professor Emeritus of Music at SUNY Stony Brook.
|1940||Piano Sonata No.1||Piano solo||17|
|1941||Concerto for Violin & Orchestra||Chamber orchestra with flute, clarinet and violin||20|
|1946||Box Hill Overture||Orchestra|
|1946||Cantilena for Oboe & String Orchestra||Mixed instrumental ensemble||6|
|1946||Little Concert: Suite for Piano||Piano solo||7|
|1947||Little Concert for Orchestra||Orchestra||12|
|1948||Three Movements for Violin and Piano||Piano and violin||17|
|1951||Toccata in Four Movements for Harpsichord||Large harpsichord – dedicated to Sylvia Marlowe|
|1952||Concerto for Winds & Strings||Chamber orchestra with flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and bassoon||15|
|1956||Sonata for Violoncello and Piano||Piano and cello|
|1956||Three Songs for St. Cecelia's Day||Piano and voice – lyric after W.H. Auden||8|
|1957||Serenade For Symphony Orchestra||Orchestra||11|
|1959||Suite for Orchestra||Orchestra||12|
|1961||Sinfonietta Concertante||Chamber orchestra||15|
|1963||String Trio||Violin, viola and cello||17|
|1964||12 Mother Goose Songs||Piano, voice, violin, viola and cello||18|
|1966||New Worlds for the Young Pianist I||24 pieces for young pianists|
|1966||New Worlds for the Young Pianist II||16 pieces for intermediate piano students|
|1966||Trio in Sei Parti||Piano, violin and cello||18|
|1967||Quodlibets for Brass Trio||Trumpets and trombone||8|
|1969||Fragments from the Cantos of Ezra Pound for Baritone And 9 Instruments|
|1973||Trios of Consanguinity||In various combinations: violin or flute, viola or clarinet, cello or bassoon||12|
|1974||Pastimes and an Alleluia||Orchestra|
|1974||Fantasy for Trumpet and Piano||Trumpet and piano||11|
|1978||Movements for Trumpet & Various Instruments VI||Trumpet solo, tom-toms, temple blocks, xylophone and crotales||15|
|1980||Threads of Sound Recalled||Piano solo||20|
|1982||Concerto for Harp & Orchestra||Chamber orchestra with trumpet and harp||22|
|1984||Movements for Trumpet & Various Instruments VIII||Trumpet, vibraphone and marimba||9|
|1984||Pond in a Bowl||Piano, vibraphone, marimba, bongos and voice – lyric after Han Yu||17|
|1985||Four Pieces for Violin and Percussion||Violin, xylophone, marimba, temple blocks and bongos||19|
|1988||Bagatelle for Piano II||Piano solo||7|
|1989||An Assembled Sequence for a Solo Percussionist||Glockenspiel, vibraphone, gongs, tam-tams, castanets, claves and guiro||30|
|1989||An Assembled Sequence VIII: Making A Collection||Vibraphone and marimba||10|
|1989||Bagatelle for Piano III||Piano solo||7|
|1989||Ten Pieces for Piano Four Hands (Games and Pastimes)||Piano four-hands||16|
|1991||Bagatelle for Piano IV||Piano solo||10|
|1992||The Seasons||Piano, percussion and voice – lyric after T’ang Dynasty poems||25|
|1993||Quintet||Piano, flute, clarinet, violin, and cello||19|
|1994||Gather and Disperse||Chamber orchestra with piano, flute, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, violin and percussion||19|
|1995||Four Songs, on Poems by Claire Nicolas White||Piano and voice||19|
|1996||Three Indian Tales||Percussion and voice – lyric by Claire Nicolas White, adapted from American Indian Tales||18|
|1998||Bagatelle for Piano V||Piano solo||7|
|2000||Music for Solo Harp and Chamber Ensemble||Chamber ensemble with piano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, harp and percussion||20|
- John Lessard interviewed by Bruce Duffie, May 6, 1989 (transcription)
- “Alida White Betrothed – Granddaughter of Architect to Be Bride of John A. Lessard” - New York Times, Tuesday May 18, 1943, page 16
- International Who’s Who in Music and Musician’s Directory (in the Classical and Light Classical Fields) – Vol. 1, 2000/2001, p 383; Ed. David M. Cummings, ©2000 by Melrose Press Ltd, Cambridge, England
- Lessard, Suzannah (1996). The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family. The Dial Press. ISBN 978-0385314459.
- Entry for John A Lessard
- List of compositions on American Composers Alliance website
- John Lessard profile on American Composers Alliance website
- Original liner notes from the LP jacket for CRI 122, including John Lessard’s Concerto for Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon, String Quartet, and String Orchestra
- Original liner notes from the LP jacket for CRI 208, including John Lessard’s Sonata for 'cello and Piano (1955), with Bernard Greenhouse and Menahem Pressler
- John Lessard interviewed by Bruce Duffie, May 6, 1989 (transcription)
- Biographical material about Sylvia Marlowe on Remington Records