Obituary: William Albright

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE virtually no pianists left today to maintain the age- old tradition of the composer- performer, the tradition that produced Mozart, Beethoven, Paderewski and Rachmaninov. But it has survived rather better among organists, and William Albright was one of its brightest representatives.

Albright was born in Gary, Indiana, in 1944. As a child he moved with his family to West Orange, New Jersey, before going as a 15-year-old to New York, to the Preparatory Department of the Juilliard School of Music. In 1962, however, he returned to the Mid-West, to Ann Arbor in Michigan, to study for a BMus. His composition teachers there were Ross Lee Finney and George Rochberg; later, in 1968-69, he also took lessons from Olivier Messiaen in Paris. That BMus was only the first of the three degrees that the University of Michigan was eventually to award him, and almost inevitably he joined the faculty, teaching composition from 1970 and succeeding Leslie Bassett as chair of the Composition Department.

Albright's career was spangled with distinctions: an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two Fulbright awards, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Queen Marie-Jose Prize, and many more. In 1993 the American Guild of Organists elected him Composer of the Year - as well they might, for he contributed generously to the organ repertoire.

He had a bright reputation as a performer. He was an organ recitalist of world stature, travelling widely in the US in particular. He was also an assiduous explorer of the rag tradition - he recorded, among much else, the complete piano rags of Scott Joplin.

As a practising musician, Albright was almost bound to write accessible music (there are few arch- modernists among people who also play the stuff), and the mix of the twin disciplines of composing and performing in turn guaranteed that his teaching would be supportive and understanding. A common thread in comments from his students in Michigan is his generosity, his enthusiasm in deploying his expertise to help them round thorny problems - and his considerable personal warmth.

Albright's music covers a wide range of genres, orchestral, vocal, chamber and instrumental. He described it as "generous, eclectic and maximal" and said, "I enjoy and prefer messy diversity to boring unity." He occasionally explored theoretical questions in his compositions, employing 12-tone rows, and he was much occupied by pitch relationships. But his music generally welcomes the listener - even the titles beckon: Take That, Doo-dah, Peace Pipe, That Sinking Feeling.

Several of his orchestral pieces have a concertante element, often for his own instrument, the organ, a Gothic Suite (1973) and Bacchanal (1980) among them. The chamber music shows the healthy eclecticism of his ear: Albright wrote for the standard combinations, of course, but also for a wide range of unusual sonorities - double-bass and harpsichord, two bassoons, four percussionists, horn and organ, and more. He took a lively interest in electronic music; indeed, he was head of the electronic studio at Michigan. There are two operas, Cross of Gold (1975) and The Magic City (1978), and several substantial choral works, not least a Mass in D and the Chichester Mass (both 1974).

But it is his pieces for piano and, especially, for organ that are best known. One of them Flights of Fancy, a "ballet for organ" (an innovative idea) composed in 1991-92, has reached a wide audience thanks to an Albany CD recorded by Pamela Decker and supervised by Albright. Flights of Fancy illustrates many of the salient characteristics of Albright's music. It is perfectly laid out for the instrument and highly resourceful in exploring unexpected colours and combinations. It is inclusive: most unusually for an organ work, it includes a "Tango fantastico", a "Ragtime Lullaby" and a "Shimmy" - and it ends with a rousing, tongue-in-cheek "Fight Song" for the American Guild of Organists.

William Hugh Albright, composer, organist and teacher: born Gary, Indiana 20 October 1944; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Ann Arbor, Michigan 17 September 1998.