THE AMERICAN composer Stephen Albert, in a creative life now tragically cut short in a car crash, nevertheless had ample time to add a new chapter to the history of composers intoxicated with the world of the Irish writer James Joyce.
Albert's musical response began with a setting of parts of Joyce's avant-garde novel Finnegans Wake for soprano and chamber ensemble, To Wake the Dead (1977), which was given in the presence of the composer during the American Music Festival at the Royal Academy of Music in London in March 1990. In 1984 Albert completed his Symphony, to which he gave the Joycean title of RiverRun, and in the following year it gained the distinction of a Pulitzer Prize. Another work based on Finnegans Wake, TreeStone for soprano and tenor soloists with orchestra, also dates from 1984.
The composer's productive contact with Joyce - his music somehow sounds uncannily like Joyce - and his resulting success in reaching a public are indicated by the fact all these works are now available on CD in Britain, the Symphony in a performance by the Washington National Symphony Orchestra under Rostropovitch.
But Albert's Joycean Odyssey continued, although in 1981 he had used poems of Ted Hughes for Into Eclipse and American poets before that. In 1985 he turned to Joyce's earlier novel Ulysses, for Flower on the Mountain, which is based on Molly Bloom's final soliloquy. He returned to this subject for Distant Hills Coming Nigh (1991), which is an expansion of the earlier work, adding parts of Leopold Bloom's contribution.
Albert's obsession with Joyce can be compared with the connection between another mainstream American composer, David del Tredici, and Alice in Wonderland. But Albert, too, had established his personality in music unrelated to a text. All the same there is an implied drama within his In Concordiam (1988), which is a type of violin concerto calculatedly modulating in style through the manners established by composers ranging from Bruch to Stravinsky. In this respect he had the courage to assimilate obvious influences. Some of Albert's most recent works are also of concerto proportions - the Cello Concerto (1990) and Wind Canticle (1992) for clarinet and orchestra.
Stephen Albert was born in New York City and his main composition teachers were Elie Siegmeister and, when he was at the Eastman School, Bernard Rogers. But he also encountered the French tradition in short periods of study with Darius Milhaud and American conservatism under George Rochberg at the University of Pennsylvania. Albert spent the 1967-68 academic year working as composer-in-residence at schools in Lima, Ohio, through the Ford Foundation project. From then onwards he had a steady stream of awards, grants, and fellowships which enabled him to develop his fluent command of both traditional and electronic media: he combined the two in Cathedral Music (1971).