A student of Paul Hindemith, Etler is noted for his highly rhythmic, harmonic and texturally complex compositional style, taking inspiration from the works of Béla Bartók and Aaron Copland as well as the syncopated rhythms of jazz. He did his formal studies at the University of Illinois, the Cleveland Institute of Music and Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Although Etler's later works are the progenies of serialism and the post World War II compositional rationale, these works tend to have distinct tonal references. Like his mentor Paul Hindemith, he embraced the "neo-Baroque" concepts of form and polyphonic writing.
Etler received several important commissions from major orchestras and a number of these works were premiered by prominent conductors including Fritz Reiner, who conducted the premiere of the Symphonietta in 1941, his Passacaglia and Fugue in 1947 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and George Szell, who commissioned the Concerto in One Movement for the Cleveland Orchestra in 1957. His Concerto for Wind Quintet and Orchestra was premiered by the Japan Philharmonic in 1960 and was subsequently performed in 1962 by both the New York Philharmonic, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Erich Leinsdorf.
His Concerto for Brass Quintet, String Orchestra and Percussion and his Sonic Sequence for Brass (both composed in 1967), were recorded by the National Orchestra Association under conductor John Barnett for Composers Recordings, Inc.
His large scale works include:
- Music for Chamber Orchestra (1938)
- Symphonietta (1941)
- Passacaglia and Fugue (1947)
- Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (1948)
- Symphony (1951)
- Dramatic Overture for Orchestra (1956)
- Concerto for Wind Quintet and Orchestra (1960)
- Concerto for Brass Quintet, String Orchestra and Percussion (1967)
- Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra (1970)
Other notable chamber and solo works include his two woodwind quintets (from 1955 and 1957), a bassoon sonata, the 1963 "Quintet for Brass Instruments," and "Fragments" for woodwind quartet.
Views and Legacy
Etler's views on the creative process also reflect those of Hindemith:
"A composer creates music because it is a function of the whole person similar to other spiritual and physical functions. If he is compelled to perform this function with sufficient intensity, and is likewise endowed with certain requisite sensibilities and intellectual vigor, then his work is apt in turn to perform its own function relative to society and to the development of the art he practices."
The idea of art in relationship to the society in which it is conceived and presented echoes Hindemith's perspectives on the role of art and artists in developing a culture that manifests the best attributes of humanity.
Though he played with the Indianapolis Symphony in 1938, he eventually abandoned his orchestral life in order to focus on his increasingly successful compositional career (which earned him two Guggenheim Fellowships during this period). In 1942 he joined the faculty at Yale University as conductor of the university band and instructor of wind instruments, where he began his studies with Hindemith. In 1954 he won the Young Composers Award of the American Federation of Music Clubs and was the first recipient of the Yale Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1963.
Etler is also the author of Making Music: An Introduction to Theory, an introductory-level theory text published posthumously in 1974.
- Ewen, David. American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982.
- Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. "Alvin Etler."
- Harris, Edward Carl. "Original twentieth century works for solo clarinet and wind ensemble by American composers: an analytical and stylistic study." Thesis/dissertation, 1985. OCLC 20442622
- Nicholes, William Roy. "A comprehensive performance project in clarinet literature with an essay on the wind music of Alvin Etler (1913-1973).” Thesis/dissertation, 1976. OCLC 26945518
- Shelden, Paul M. "Alvin Etler (1913-1973): his career and the two sonatas for clarinet." Thesis/dissertation, 1978. OCLC 17600826
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