Provided by Professor Linda Cummins, musicologist, University of Alabama Edited from a lecture given at the 50th Anniversary Celebration (2001) by Mary Hellmann
The Early Years
The Southeastern Composers League, is among the oldest organizations of its kind in the country. Its immediate predecessor was the Alabama Composers League, founded in 1948 by Gurney Kennedy and Paul Newell, both then on the faculty at the University of Alabama. The first meeting of the League was held at the University of Alabama on January 23-24, 1948.
That group sponsored the first two Composers Forums in the spring of 1950 and 1951. These Forums consisted of rehearsal/ read-throughs of a number of works by members of the League. The invited guest conductors included Roy Harris, William Bergsma and John Boda.
In 1951 or 1952 (the date is unclear), the Southeastern Composers League was founded, again initiated by Mr. Kennedy, and began sponsoring the now renamed Regional Composers Forum. These Forums were held annually on the campus of the University of Alabama until 1970; they were supported by the University through its Department of Music (now School of Music), with the assistance of the College of Arts and Sciences. Other financial support came periodically from the Rockefeller Foundation and private donors.
An initial commentary on the Forum clarifies the objectives of the League: “To make a direct contribution to the development and maturation of contemporary composers by providing what might be called a laboratory or workshop in which new works might be put to the test of performance.”
To meet that objective the Forum provided southeastern composers a venue for the performance of their works, and a chance to meet, hear, and be heard—not only by each other and by a sympathetic though critical audience, but also by nationally and internationally-known composers, critics, and conductors. A list of invited guest composers reads, as Mark Francis remarked, much like the index of a Twentieth-Century Music History text: Roy Harris, William Bergsma, Wayne Barlow, Ross Lee Finney, Peter Mennin, Bernard Wagenaar, Norman Dello Joio, Lukas Foss, Vincent Persichetti Robert Palmer, Burrill Phillips, Wallingford Riegger, Ernst Krenek, Henry Cowell Milton Babbitt, Alvin Etler, Iain Hamilton, Robert Ward, Roque Cordero, Carlos Chavez. That tradition continues, most recently, with Sir Harrison Birtwistle.
Several of these composers were commissioned by the Forum to write quartets for the Cadek String Quartet, then in residence at the University of Alabama: Vincent Persichetti, Ross Lee Finney, Alvin Etler, Robert Ward and Roque Cordero. The Cadek Quartet (Emil Raab and Roland Johnson/Michael Gattozzi, violin, Henry Barrett, viola; Margaret Christy, cello) premiered these works at Forum concerts. Guest critics: Olin Downes and Theodore Strongin (NY Times), Miles Kastendieck (Christian Science Monitor), Benjamin Boretz (Perspectives of New Music).
Of the composers whose works were heard at the forum, many established careers in the Southeast: Frederic Goosen, Morris Knight, Donald MacInnis, William Presser and Harold Schiffman. Others made their mark in other parts of the country: Kenneth Giburo was a major figure in electronic music in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in combining electronic music with live performers.
Some of those whose works were heard here became successful in fields other than composition: at least two were nationally known as avant-garde flutists as well as composers: Robert Cantrick and Patrick Purswell.
There are also musicologists: Karl Kroeger, who taught at the University of Colorado and edited the complete works of the important American composer William Billings; Wallace McKenzie, who was one of the founders of the International Webern Society and was its president; Calvin Bower, an internationally known medievalist now teaching at the University of Notre Dame; and Neely Bruce, Americanist, now at Wesleyan University. In addition, at least two held high office in CMS: David Ward Steinman and Phillip Rhodes who was president of the society.
The Forum schedule usually included at least three reading sessions or concerts/recitals each day, beginning on Thursday or Friday; a panel discussion involving the guest composers, critics and conductors; a meeting of the SCL; a banquet; and a final concert of selected works. Emphasis from the beginning remained on the music, whether read, rehearsed or performed.
In 1956, leadership of the Forum passed to Wilbur Rowand, chairman of the Music Department at the University of Alabama. Tireless in his promotion of the Forum, he was primarily responsible for securing its financing, and was in every respect the guiding force for its concluding 15 years. He was assisted during this period by David Cohen and, after 1966, by Frederic Goosen. By the late 1980s, it had become apparent that the Forum was no longer serving its original purpose. Fewer composers were involved as younger composers found other venues for their compositions, and many who had received their first public exposure at Forum concerts now had additional outlets for their music. In part, this was due to many guest composers who performed works from the Forum with their home orchestras. In addition to regional conductors, Guy Fraser Harrison, who conducted the Oklahoma orchestra, may be the best known from out of the area. Morris Knight's radio series, Music Now, had also played an important role in the promotion and dissemination of music of southeastern composers.
Given these choices with funding becoming more and more difficult, Wilbur Rowand and Frederic Goosen decided that the Forum had served its purpose. The last Regional Composers Forum was held on the University of Alabama campus in 1970.
Since 1970, the Southeastern Composers League has continued to meet the needs of composers in this area through annual meetings and association with other organizations.
In 1978, The Southeastern Composers League and the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill held a Festival of New Music; in 1979 the league met again at the University of Alabama, and that same year co-sponsored a Symposium of New Woodwind Quintet music with the University of Georgia. Other meeting sites in the 1980s included Florida State University, University of North Carolina and University of Georgia.
The 50th Anniversary meeting, in 2001, was held on the University of Alabama campus, honoring and celebrating the works of those who had contributed so much to the League and to contemporary music of the recent past. Under the leadership of those currently active such as immediate past presidents Michael Kallstrom, Bruce Mahin, and then president Mark Francis, the League continued to flourish and to provide for its members.
The objective given in the 1959 Constitution and Bylaws, which is the earliest I have been able to acquire (thanks to Morris Knight) include: a) the encouragement of serious original composition in the Southeast; b) the development of a hospitable climate sympathetic to such works; c) the maturation and the continuation of education for its members; d) the encouragement of performances of contemporary music in general and works by its members in particular.