> Elinor Remick Warren :American composer by Pamela Blevins MusicWeb(UK)

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By Pamela Blevins

© 2002

In 1952, the American composer Elinor Remick Warren approached the Three Choirs Festival in England with her choral symphony the Legend of King Arthur. The director, Herbert Sumsion, turned the work down without even looking at the score, not because Warren was a woman, but because the text by Tennyson was not considered "suitable" for a venue that kept largely to "sacred words."

Attitudes and rules change over time and the Legend of King Arthur was at the heart of the same Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral in 1995 under the baton of Richard Hickox. With the British premiere of her masterpiece, Warren became the first American woman ever to have her work performed in this, the world's oldest surviving music festival. Horatio Parker (1863-1919) is the only other American composer to have such a large scale composition featured - his oratorios Hora Novissima in 1900 (the year of Warren's birth) and St. Christopher (Part III) in 1902.

But the British premiere carried with it a bittersweet note. One of Warren's dreams was to attend a performance of The Legend of King Arthur in England. Sadly, this was not to be. She died in 1991. Ironically, Herbert Sumsion died the same week that King Arthur received its premiere at Three Choirs.

Warren had a highly successful career that spanned 75 years, starting with the publication of her first composition, A Song of June, by G. Schirmer in 1918. She was still a high school student in her native Los Angeles, where her contemporaries readily acknowledged that "she had a depth far beyond the rest of us."

Warren was the painfully shy but intellectually precocious only child of musical parents. One of her earliest memories was of her mother, Maude, playing the piano. Music was part of the daily routine in the Warren household. In the evenings her parents would retire to their music room where her father, James, would sing in his clear tenor voice while her mother accompanied him. When she was just 13 months old, Elinor astonished her parents, much as Amy Cheney Beach had done a generation before, by humming perfectly part of a lullaby, Rock-a-bye Birdie. Two months later she could hum the entire song.

By the age of three, Elinor was picking out pieces on the piano and at the age of 5 years and 9 months, she completed her first composition, Forget-Me-Not Waltz. Her mother copied into notebooks all of Elinor's early efforts, ranging from piano solos to songs for which the child also wrote the words and full piano accompaniments. Maude Warren, who had studied music with a pupil of Liszt, also sat with her daughter as she practiced the piano, gently correcting Elinor and allowing no bad habits to mar the purity of her playing.

On her fifth birthday Elinor began music lessons with Kathryn Cocke, an enlightened teacher whose young pupils spent a year learning the principles of music through games before they were actually allowed lessons at the piano. Although generally regarded as a stern but kindly disciplinarian, Miss Cocke softened her approach in dealing with her shy new student. Realizing the depth of the child's sensitivity and seeing that it kept her brilliance from shining through, Miss Cocke gave Elinor a beautiful doll which the little girl promptly christened "Kate" in honor of her teacher. When Miss Cocke wanted an answer from Elinor, she simply addressed the doll and Elinor overcame her shyness by speaking through "Kate."

Elinor made remarkable progress, learning harmony and theory in addition to her piano studies. She attended concerts and recitals regularly and heard some of the great performers of the era including Carreno, Busoni and Paderewski, who played a special encore for her when she was eight years old. In addition to her musical gifts she showed talent for writing and acting and maintained an outstanding scholastic record. After meals as the adults settled in for conversation, she would ask to be excused to "go write my novel."

When she was ten she overheard a conversation between her parents in which they both agreed that a composition Elinor had written seemed so mature that she must have heard it somewhere. Knowing that the work was entirely her own, the child was stung by her parent's remarks. She stopped composing until she was 15 when a serious wrist injury halted her piano practice for several months, prompting Elinor to return to writing music. She also started lessons in compositon with Gertrude Ross who encouraged her to submit A Song of June to G. Schirmer.

In her mid-teens, Elinor was honored to share a program with the composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946). Half of the program featured her compositions; the other half, Cadman's.

"He was very famous then and people came to hear him," Elinor recalled many years later. "But he was so nice to me. He wasn't insulted being put on a program with almost a little girl." Impressed by Elinor's music, Cadman advised her to keep on writing and let nothing deter her because he felt that she could have a great career as a composer.

After her graduation from high school, Elinor spent a year at home taking advanced studies in composition with Gertrude Ross, and in piano with Olga Steeb, a Los Angeles native who had achieved overnight fame in pre-World War I Europe. She also attended Mills College in Oakland for a year and studied singing "which was funny because I can't sing," she admitted later. Her singing teacher, realizing the extent of Elinor's gifts and aware that her pupil was stealing time from her studies to compose, encouraged her to go to New York.

Her parents were reluctant to let their only child move to New York, but relented in the face of her fierce determination. Once settled in the city, Elinor studied accompaniment and the art song with Frank LaForge and orchestration and counterpoint with Dr. Clarence Dickinson. In addition to G. Schirmer, Theodore Presser and Carl Fischer were publishing her songs almost as fast as she wrote them. By 1922, her choral works first appeared in print. Elinor Remick Warren had found her wellspring.

Shortly after she began her studies with LaForge, he suggested that she take up a career as touring accompanist with Metropolitan Opera stars he knew and coached. "I cannot think of a more valuable project for a composer of art songs than to experience an extended period of accompanying a singer...frequently the more important lessons are `caught not always taught,'" she later observed. Warren toured primarily with Florence Easton, and performed periodically with Richard Crooks, Lawrence Tibbett, Lucrezia Bori, Margaret Matzenauer and Grete Stueckgold, who admired her songs and performed them throughout their careers. She appeared occasionally as soloist with symphony orchestras and made piano recordings for the Okeh label, including one of her own piece The Frolic of the Elves.

During one of her summer visits to Los Angeles, Elinor began dating a young doctor whom she married in 1925. They had a son, James, born in 1928, but the marriage ended in divorce shortly after his birth.

Now based in Los Angeles, Elinor continued to tour the Western states. She also embarked on an intensive study of orchestration first with Allard de Ridder, principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and then on her own after he left to assume a new post.

For her first orchestral setting, Warren chose Edna St. Vincent Millay's Pulitzer Prize-winning poem The Harp Weaver, which Warren regarded as a "modern miracle play." She had met the poet at a reading and Millay herself gave the composer permission to set the poem. Critics hailed the new work featuring baritone with chorus, as "melodious, picturesque, and imbued with appropriate feeling...effective tone-painting" and praised the composer's "genuine creative talent." The premiere of The Harp Weaver was conducted by Antonia Brico at Carnegie Hall in 1936.

1936 would prove to be a particularly happy year for Warren. She married Z. Wayne Griffin, a young tenor she had met in 1930. Allergies and asthma ultimately prevented him from pursuing a professional career in music but he became a radio, film and television producer. His credits include The Burns and Allen Show and The Maxwell House Hour (radio), the GE Theatre (television) hosted by Ronald Reagan and films starring Claudette Colbert, Ava Gardner, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore and Fred MacMurray. The couple had two children, Wayne, born in 1938 and Elayne, born in 1940.

During this period, Warren hosted her own weekly radio program about music that was broadcast in the Pacific Coast states (1938-39), and she worked on her choral symphony The Passing [Legend] of King Arthur. (Warren revised the title because her composition does not dwell on King Arthur’s death.)

Throughout her career, Warren often turned to British poets for the texts of her choral music and songs, setting the words of poets ranging from Chaucer and Blake to Hardy, the Rossettis and D.H. Lawrence as well as lesser-known writers like Eleanor Farjeon and Robert Nichols.

The story of King Arthur had first attracted Warren's attention in her last year of high school when her English teacher read Tennyson's Idylls of the King aloud in class. The young composer was "mesmerized" and "thrilled with the part of it called `The Passing of King Arthur.' It just took hold of me, and I knew I wanted to set it to music. However, being a realist, I knew I would have to wait to acquire the skills to carry through what my imagination showed me could be done," Warren explained.

The world premiere of Legend of King Arthur took place in Los Angeles in 1940, with the British conductor Albert Coates, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Oratorio Society. The performance, which was carried on national radio caused a sensation and earned Warren "a rousing ovation." A critic for the Los Angeles Daily News wrote: "There is not a measure that does not fit cannily into the musical flux, which surges and glistens with radiant orchestral color, and flows in luminous tonal strands through massed choral forces." Warren had scaled the sublime heights of music to create a noble and mystical drama.

She continued composing music of exceptional tonal color in a neo-Romantic style, creating sumptuous sound through her mastery of orchestration. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Warren produced some of her most important works: The Sleeping Beauty (Tennyson), The Crystal Lake, Along the Western Shore, Singing Earth (Sandburg), Transcontinental (A.M. Sullivan), Suite for Orchestra, Abram in Egypt (Dead Sea Scrolls). In 1959, she studied briefly in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, an experience that "broadened" Warren's musical horizons.

Honors began coming her way. She was named "Woman of the Year" by The Los Angeles Times in 1953 and received an honorary doctorate from Occidental College in L.A. in 1954. Despite her high profile, Warren was not one to socialize, preferring to spend her rare leisure time with her family and a few close friends like Richard Crooks and his wife and her neighbors, the Nelson Eddys.

She was an intensely private and introspective woman and a fully committed artist. "One must be prepared for a life of frequent periods of isolation, with no interruptions of the concentration required to attack the blank sheet of manuscript staring back from the work table," she once wrote. "Don't plan on going out to lunch. You will rarely see even the friends dear to your heart. No phone calls, either, to break the concentration. How can one listen to the inner voice except in aloneness?" Wayne Griffin respected and understood his wife's work and did everything in his power to ensure that she have the time she needed to compose. He once jokingly admonished their children, "Only if you break a leg may you interrupt your mother when she's composing."

In 1963 Roger Wagner approached Warren with a commission to compose a requiem. At first she hesitated. She was unfamiliar with the Catholic liturgy and was aware that her work would inevitably be measured against the great requiems of Faure, Brahms, Verdi and Mozart. But Wagner overcame her objections, convincing her that she would find the experience "inspiring" and one she should not pass up.

Warren spent weeks studying liturgical forms and their history before she began the actual writing which occupied her fully for three years. She worked the entire day on the composition, breaking only for lunch and to greet her children when they returned from school. Her day ended shortly before six each evening when the jangling bell of a neighborhood ice cream vendor alerted her to the fact that her husband would soon be home from the office.

"It was a growth experience, engrossing and monumental," she explained. "I think of a requiem not only as a service for one person's death, but as a monument of faith." Warren's Requiem emerges as a "prayer for all mankind" to a "loving God" that soars with hope and serenity. Writing the Requiem was a "great fulfillment" for Warren and showed her "that we're all very much the same no matter how we express our belief." Once again, critics found much to praise. Patterson Greene of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner found it "...a devout, quietly intense work...a dignified, meditative and distinguished contribution to choral literature."

During the 1970s a survey of major American orchestras revealed that Warren was one of the most performed women orchestral composers of the decade. Commissions continued to come her way and she produced more major works including her Symphony in One Movement in 1970 and a setting of Carl Sandburg's Good Morning, America! for chorus, narrator and orchestra.

Despite her advancing years, Warren remained remarkably youthful in both appearance and attitude. In 1980, she and her husband spent months going over more than 60 of her published songs to choose 12 for a new collection from Carl Fischer, Selected Songs by Elinor Remick Warren. Unfortunately, it would be the last project the couple shared. After years of ill health, Wayne Griffin died from cancer shortly before the collection appeared in 1981.

Warren was devastated, but slowly resumed both composition and playing to sustain her in the aftermath of her loss. She appeared occasionally in programs of her songs. In the mid-80s, Lance Bowling of Cambria Records in California approached Warren about recording her music. He convinced her to appear as the accompanist in a compact disc devoted entirely to her songs, marking the beginning of a comprehensive CD survey of her music. She was 86 years old.

Unlike many of her contemporaries in the United States and Europe, she never compromised her musical ideals to experimentation and trends. Warren possessed a passionate romantic soul and was deeply moved by nature, beauty and the sublime. Her music reflects her inner being and seems at times to come from a secluded, distant place.

During her long career, Warren never dwelled on the fact that she was a woman working in a male-dominated field As she explained, "I always try to write music as I feel it."

"I don't think compositions, whether they're large or small, have a gender, as far as the music goes, and I think it makes no difference to state `this is a woman composer,' `this is a man composer,'" Warren commented in a 1987 interview.

"I've had many people say to me `You play like a man,' or `Your music sounds as if it were written by a man.' I think they associate any kind of music that is rather strong or powerful with manliness."

When the interviewer observed, "Because the work is so big and we just don't expect that of a woman," Warren shot back, "I don't know why. Women have thoughts too!"

Six months before her death in April 1991, Elinor Remick Warren was interviewed on video by her friend, soprano Marilyn Horne. The 90-year-old composer appeared confident, relaxed and cheerful as she spoke with enthusiasm and humility about her family, teachers, career and the influences that helped shape her life. But in one particularly poignant moment, she was deeply moved when Miss Horne shared with viewers Warren's beautiful tribute to her beloved mother who recognized and nurtured her only child's great gifts.

"This is a very special book," Miss Horne explains as she tenderly leafs through a large leatherbound book, "and I must say that it brings tears to my eyes because this is a collection of Elinor's [published] songs and it is inscribed `To Mama, remembering all the hours spent by a little girl's side at the piano so long ago, which was the beginning of the making of these pieces, from her loving Elinor.'"

Resources on Elinor Remick Warren


Legend of King Arthur

(Cambria CD-1043) 1991

Thomas Hampson, baritone

Lawrence Vincent, tenor

Polish Radio and Television Orchestra and

Chorus of Cracow, Szymon Kawalla, conductor

Good Morning, America!

(Cambria CD-1042) 1989

Suite for Orchestra; The Crystal Lake;

Symphony in One Movement; Along the Western Shore

Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., narrator

Polish Radio and Television Orchestra and

Chorus of Cracow, Szymon Kawalla, conductor

Art Songs by Elinor Remick Warren

(Cambria CD-1028)

Marie Gibson, soprano

Catherine Smith, flute

Elinor Remick Warren, piano


(Cambria CD-1061) forthcoming

Marina Sandel, mezzo-soprano

Ryszard Ciešla, baritone

Polish Radio and Television Orchestra and

Chorus of Cracow, Szymon Kawalla, conductor

Singing Earth

(Cambria CD-1095)

Singing Earth,The Harp Weaver,

The Sleeping Beauty, Abram in Egypt

Thomas Hampson, baritone

Polish Radio and Television Orchestra and

Chorus of Cracow, Bruce Ferden, conductor

Anne Perillo Sings Songs by Elinor Remick Warren

and other American Composers

(Plymouth 91881) 1988

Florence Baldacci, piano

For Collectors:

Elinor Remick Warren -- Frolic of the Elves

Warren, piano

(w/Dedication (Schumann-Liszt)

(Okeh 40147) 1924 (78 rpm)

Warren recorded 4 additional 78s for Okeh

-- Nos. 4873, 40070, 40159, 73143


Virginia Bortin, Elinor Remick Warren, Her Life and Her Music,

(Metuchen, NJ & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1987)

Contact Pamela Blevins at pblevins@erols.com for information on ordering

Virginia Bortin, Elinor Remick Warren, A Bio-Bibliography, (Westport, CT & London: Greenwood Press, 1993).


Compositions in print

More than 200 of Warren's compositions have been published. Her primary publishers are Carl Fischer, New York and G. Schirmer, New York

Radio Documentary

An American Composer: The Legacy of Elinor Remick Warren

Written by Virginia Bortin, Narrated by Jill Pasternak, Produced by Lance Bowling, Cambria Records

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