Full name, Stephen Paul Hartke; born July 6, 1952, in Orange, N.J.; son of George and Priscilla Ott Hartke. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1973; University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, M.A. in composition, 1976; University of California (USC), PhD, 1982. Addresses: Record company-- New World Records, 701 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10036.

Stephen Hartke is rapidly gaining prominence as one of the best young American symphonic composers of the late twentieth century. In an interview with U.S. News and World Report, Leonard Slatkin, conductor of the St. Louis Symphony and an avid supporter of contemporary music, maintained that Hartke numbers in the top three American composers of his era. Hartke has received numerous commissions and awards for his works, which have been featured in concerts and broadcasts throughout the United States, as well as in Europe, the Soviet Union, and South America. Reviewing a performance of Hartke's orchestral work Pacific Rim for the Detroit News, writer Lawrence B. Johnson described Hartke's music as reflecting an "eclectic style molded by keen originality, brilliant technique and a concern for reaching not just the ear and intellect but the heart as well."

In 1952 Hartke was born in Orange, New Jersey, to George and Priscilla Hartke. Stephen showed an early interest in music. At age 5 or 6 he could already identify the instruments of the orchestra. After the Hartke family moved to New York City, beginning at age 9, Stephen performed professionally as a boy soprano with the New York Pro Musica, the Metropolitan Opera, the Juilliard Opera, and with metropolitan area orchestras. Young Hartke was influenced to become a composer when the local parish choirmaster was cleaning and giving away 78 rpm records--Hartke ended up with a recording of Samuel Barber's First Symphony. It was a revelation to him that a living American was actually composing music that was not musical comedy.

Hartke began formal composition study age 14. He started his composition career composing atonal music, and even won a BMI Award at age 16 for a piece he wrote for string orchestra. He subsequently studied with James Drew at Yale University, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1973. "[I] started out as an academic atonalist," Hartke told Kenneth LaFave, music editor for the Kansas City Star. "Then in the early 1970s I became dissatisfied. I wasn't loving every note I wrote. So I started cutting out the notes I didn't love and discovered that the more I cut out those notes, the more and more tonal the music became.

"A lot of the so-called neo-romantic tendencies have to do with nostalgia. But I didn't approach it that way. I just focused on the notes I like and the music came out tonal." But the more tonal Hartke's music became, the less it pleased academics and his works therefore received fewer and fewer performances. Hartke was firm in his conviction that his music was to be tonally based, however. To better his composition skills he studied composition at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia with American composer George Rochberg, who believes that the expressive aspects of music need to balance the technical aspects or serialism could lead to a sterile and mechanical academicism.

After Hartke earned his Master of Arts degree in composition in 1976, he spent several years working in the advertising and educational areas of the music publishing industry. But he found such work hindered his composition efforts. "One of the worst ways to make any headway as a composer was to work in music publishing," he reflected to Richard S. Ginell of the Los Angeles Daily News, "because no one takes you seriously as an artist if you're inside the business." To further his career as a composer, in 1981 Hartke accepted a visiting lectureship in composition at the University of California (USC), Santa Barbara's College of Creative Studies and the following year earned his doctorate in composition at USC.

In 1984 Hartke was awarded a Fulbright professorship in composition at the Universidade de Sao Paulo, Escola de Comunicacoes e Artes in Sao Paulo, Brazil. While in Brazil Hartke composed a piece for two violins, Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen, which he later orchestrated and retitled Maltese Cat Blues. The piece takes its original title from a song by Blind Lemon Jefferson, a great blues singer and composer who died in 1929. "Years ago I heard a recording of Sleepy John Estes singing his own version of it, which begins 'Oh them rats is mean in my kitchen,'" Hartke explained in the concert program notes. "The melody has since faded from my mind, but the style of singing, with its energetic speech-song and wailing, typical of early blues, fixed itself in my memory. In 1985 ... I underwent that sharpening of my sense of national identity which almost inevitably results from a prolonged stay abroad. That memory of Sleepy John's singing resurfaced and prompted me to compose a piece as an homage to the spirit of blues performance." Rather than attempting to reconstruct the tune, Hartke tried to distill and reflect the ingredients of the blues form, particularly the declamatory style of blues singing. Maltese Cat Blues and the original violin duo have been performed throughout the United States and in Europe, and Maltese Cat Blues won the Louisville Orchestra Prize in 1987.

In 1988 Hartke was appointed the first composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and commissioned to compose an orchestral piece to celebrate the ensemble's twentieth season. Pacific Rim was the result. "The work ... is a virtuoso showpiece for the orchestra and is also a reflection of how certain aspects of Asian and Latin-American musics have filtered into my mind and become transformed and absorbed within my compositional thought. The piece is in two linked sections and may be simply described as a processional and fugue," Hartke explained in the program notes.

Hartke maintains that critics of his work overstress his interest in vernacular musics, such as jazz, because that seems to be a widespread bias in current criticism of contemporary music. "While I indeed draw on vernacular influences to my musical thought-processes," the composer told Contemporary Musicians, "I am in no way a re-packager of pop styles in some late twentieth-century guise; rather, I think I merely reflect my experience as a part of the audience, though I fear my tastes as an audience member do not necessarily fall in line with 'majority' opinion."

by Jeanne M. Lesinski

Stephen Hartke's Career

Began performing as a professional boy soprano at age 9; began composing formally at age 14; studied with Laurence Widdoes in New York; with Leonardo Balada, United Nations International School; with James Drew, Yale University; was awarded a visiting lectureship in composition at USC, 1981; composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, 1988.

Stephen Hartke's Awards

New York State School Music Association composition award, 1969; BMI awards, 1970, 1972; William DeVane award, Yale University; Fulbright professorship, 1984; Louisville Orchestra Prize, 1987.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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