Peter Mennin was born in 1923, in Erie, Pennsylvania. His parents, of Italian origin, were avid music lovers, and music played a central role within the family household. Peter’s formal study of music began when he was five. He was assigned to a local teacher who insisted that the boy study solfeggio before taking up an instrument. After a year, he began studying the piano, and at seven, began to compose. His early exploration into composition resulted in songs, string quartets, and piano pieces. When he was 11, he made his first attempt at writing a symphony.
After graduating from high school at age 16, Mennin entered the Oberlin College Conservatory, studying composition with Normand Lockwood. In 1942, after two years at Oberlin, during which time he had completed a 45-minute Symphony No. 1, he left the school to join the Army Air Corps, completing his service the following year.
In 1944, Mennin wanted to resume his education and, having heard about the Eastman School’s policy of performing student works, decided to visit. He met with the Director, Howard Hanson, who, after examining the young composer’s manuscripts, offered him an orchestration fellowship to stay at Eastman.
While at Eastman, he worked under Hanson and Bernard Rogers and wrote Symphony No. 2 and a Concertino for Flute, Strings, and Percussion. He earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in 1945. Though he later withdrew the work, the Symphony No. 2 brought considerable attention to his music that year. The opening movement won the first Gershwin Memorial Prize and the entire score was awarded the Bearns Prize from Columbia University. In 1946 he received a scholarship to study conducting with Serge Koussevitzky and an award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. It was also at Eastman that he met Georganne Bairnson, a young violinist, whom he was to marry upon completing his formal education.
As part of the requirements for his Ph.D., Mennin completed his Symphony No. 3, already revealing the predilection for large forms that was to characterize his mature output. In 1947 he was awarded his Doctoral Degree for the symphony, which had already been introduced to the public by the New York Philharmonic. Shortly after being awarded his Doctorate, he accepted an invitation from William Schuman to join the newly overhauled composition faculty at the Juilliard School. It was also in 1947 that the composer and Georganne were married.
The auspicious premiere of the 23-year-old’s third symphony catapulted him to national prominence, and further performances of the work soon followed. Attending the premiere, Louis Biancolli of the New York Sun wrote, “I think this boy will bear watching—and hearing. Peter Mennin has lots to say and his own punchy way of saying it.” This and similar comments from other critics quickly brought Mennin to the forefront among young American composers.
The eleven years Mennin spent on the Juilliard composition faculty were highly fruitful: He composed more than a dozen works—including three more symphonies during that period. Nearly all were commissioned by leading arts organizations, such as the Collegiate Chorale, League of Composers, Koussevitzky Foundation, Dallas Symphony, Erie Philharmonic, Louisville Orchestra, Juilliard Musical Foundation, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, and the Cleveland Orchestra.
In order to fit composition into his busy teaching schedule, he developed the habit of writing early in the morning or late at night. He worked away from the piano, writing directly onto the full score in an impeccable hand. Many of his major works won awards, and were performed repeatedly by America’s leading conductors and orchestras, and quite a few were recorded as well. He had completed 6 full symphonies before the age of thirty.
During the 1950s, Mennin’s reputation soared. The Juilliard Review published an analytical study, “The Music of Peter Mennin,” by Walter Hendl, who concluded by stating, “There is no doubt in my mind that [Mennin’s music] is, and will continue to be, one of the dominant expressions of the creative activity of our times.” In 1956 he won a Guggenheim Award and a Fulbright Fellowship. In an essay, “The Symphony in America,” composer and musicologist Peter Jona Korn cited Mennin as “America’s outstanding younger symphonist.” Life Magazine featured a spread (with photographs by Gordon Parks) highlighting nine American composers who “stand out” as the most prominent at the time. The first page featured Mennin, the youngest of the group, “a fast-moving symphonist.”
In 1958, he accepted the post of director of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Before assuming his new post, he traveled to the Soviet Union, participating in the first cultural exchange of composers with our erstwhile enemy. During the spring of ‘58, he examined the music schools of Paris, London, Rome, Milan, Brussels and Vienna under US state department auspices. He held the Peabody post for four years, introducing many new ideas into the disciplines of conducting, opera production, concert structure, and administration. In 1962 Mennin was offered the position of President of the Juilliard School. Having had the experience of directing a conservatory, Mennin had developed an idea of how a first-class music school should operate—a view that was congruent with his own temperament and values. His was not a democratic or populist approach, a something-for-everyone approach, or one that offered a shortcut to success. During a period when educational orthodoxy was under severe attack, Mennin upheld traditional standards of excellence, rejecting “the American tendency to look for an easy way. There is no easy way,” he would say. Mennin wanted to restore an atmosphere of diligent hard work that he felt had dissipated during recent years. As his wife later recalled, “Peter’s Juilliard was for the deeply committed, highly talented person who needed to spend their student years concentrating on honing their talents to the highest possible point.”
Mennin was viewed by some as an unabashed elitist with uncompromising high standards and little need for the approval or re-assurance of others. A revealing comment he made about compositional “movements” is suggestive of the way he saw his role at Juilliard: “I don’t think any real composer ever aligns himself with a group. I think groups are silly. A composer has to travel alone. You cannot have expression in common. It becomes a compromise, and a real composer does not compromise.”
This need to maintain high standards helped to build Juilliard’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost conservatories. Mennin guided its move to Lincoln Center in l969, created the Juilliard Theater Center, The American Opera Center, Visiting Artists Program, Doctoral Program, Annual Festival of Contemporary Music, Young Conductors Program and Young Playwrights Program. During his 21 years as Juilliard’s president, Mennin composed nine works, which are major statements of considerable substance.
He also served as president and chairman of the National Music Council, president of the Walter Naumberg Foundation, a member of the U.S. State Department Advisory Committee on the Arts, on the board of ASCAP, the American Music Center, Composer’s Forum, Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and the Lincoln Center Council. With all these responsibilities, Peter Mennin remained first and foremost a composer, and continued writing music at a steady pace.
In 1981, commentator David Owens—a champion of traditional compositional approaches and a longtime admirer of Mennin’s music—conducted an extensive and probing interview with the composer, which was published in the Christian Science Monitor. Mennin discussed the principles and beliefs that formed his philosophy as both a composer and a musical educator and administrator. The impression that emerges is of a man with firm beliefs and principles and a strongly independent spirit. Finding self-promotion to be repugnant, Mennin generally refrained from discussing his music and did little to encourage its performance, confident that if his works had merit they would survive.
In 1982 Mennin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At that point, Mennin decided to keep his illness a secret, so that he could complete his responsibilities at Juilliard for the year and finish what was to be his final work, a full-length Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. He died June 17, 1983, just one month after his 60th birthday. The Aspen Music Festival had scheduled concerts of his music as a tribute for his birthday that summer. Since his death occurred just two weeks before the opening event, the performances were dedicated to his memory. Gordon Hardy, the President of the Festival, in an insert into the programs wrote: “The music world mourns the passing of Peter Mennin. He was my friend and colleague for 30 years. His dedication to the highest artistic standards reflected in both his compositions and his administrative leadership will be felt for years to come.”
His death came as a tremendous shock to most of those close to him, including his colleagues at Juilliard. At his memorial service fellow-composer Vincent Persichetti described Mennin as “an aristocrat on his own terms,” and noted “his latest work was always, in my opinion, more focused and telling than the one before it.”
Another colleague, composer Norman Dello Joio, summed up a composer’s life well lived in his eulogy for the Century Association:
“Peter Mennin was a creative individual whose articulate and passionate approach to his art was intransigent in its pursuit of excellence. Tall and strikingly handsome, he had a boyish exuberance about life that transmitted itself to those around him. Though impatient with the aesthetic cant that often beclouds the arts, he was a friend to many with whom he might disagree. Though at times his music was feverishly intense, one was aware of a disciplined control that never lapsed into incomprehensibility. He resisted ever-changing fads and stayed true to his own natural talents. He will be well remembered for the encouragement and aid he gave to those who pursued the risky path of a creative career."
The noted critic, editor, and composer Arthur Cohn, commented in 1983, “Mennin’s many accomplishments as an educator and administrator will be remembered, as they are recorded in the annals of a number of our most important institutions, but it is as a composer that he will be remembered best. He left a body of work, particularly in the symphonic genre, that is basic to the American repertoire. The fact that he never associated or aligned himself with any trend or a specific school of composition allowed him to create a catalogue of works that stand solidly within a self-designed tradition.”