John Lessard

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John Ayres Lessard
John Lessard, circa 1960
John Lessard, circa 1960 (Courtesy of American Composers Alliance)
Born(1920-07-03)July 3, 1920
San Francisco, California
DiedJanuary 11, 2003(2003-01-11) (aged 82)
East Setauket, New York
Other namesJack
OccupationComposer and educator
Known forNeo-classical works for piano, voice, ensembles and orchestra

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.

Early life[edit]

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[1][3]

Stylistic influences[edit]

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.[3]

Teaching career and later work[edit]

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.[3]


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.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Lessard and his wife Alida occupied The Red Cottage on the extensive Box Hill property overlooking Nissequogue Harbor in St. James, Long Island, NY, where they raised six daughters. [4]

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.[4]

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.[3] 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.[4]


John Lessard died in East Setauket on January 11, 2003, aged 82.[5]

Awards and grants[edit]

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.


John Lessard longer works by date of composition
Year Title Description Time (min.)
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
1971 Brass Quintet
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



  1. ^ a b c John Lessard interviewed by Bruce Duffie, May 6, 1989 (transcription)
  2. ^ “Alida White Betrothed – Granddaughter of Architect to Be Bride of John A. Lessard” - New York Times, Tuesday May 18, 1943, page 16
  3. ^ a b c d 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
  4. ^ a b c Lessard, Suzannah (1996). The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family. The Dial Press. ISBN 978-0385314459.
  5. ^ Entry for John A Lessard
  6. ^ List of compositions on American Composers Alliance website

External links[edit]