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Argento, Dominick (1927–2019)

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Dominick Argento

Dominick Argento, April 3, 2016. Photograph by King Elder, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Though he originally hoped to accept a position on the East or West Coast, American musician-composer Dominick Argento began his career in 1958 at the University of Minnesota, where he taught composition and theory. He spent the next sixty years as Minnesota’s resident composer, crafting works for nearly every Minnesota performing group and gaining international acclaim.

Born in York, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 1927, to Sicilian immigrants, Dominick Argento demonstrated an early interest in music. He regularly visited his local public library and read biographies and writings of famous musicians, such as George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He taught himself music theory and analysis and began taking piano lessons at sixteen—a relatively late age for a budding young musician. He progressed rapidly, though, and hoped to become a professional pianist when he entered college several years later. Drafted into the Army in 1945, Argento served in North Africa as a cryptographer. In 1947 he entered Peabody Conservatory, in Baltimore, on the GI bill.

At Peabody Argento’s harmony teacher, Nicolas Nabokov, suggested that he focus on composition rather than piano performance. Awed that Nabokov was a close friend of Stravinksy, Argento agreed and continued his studies with Nabokov. A few years later, Nabokov encouraged Argento to apply for a Fulbright grant to study in Florence, Italy. He received it in 1951.

As Argento was completing his undergraduate studies at Peabody, he needed a soprano singer to perform in his senior recital of original works. A friend told him about a talented young soprano, Carolyn Bailey, from Argento’s own hometown of York. She sang his song cycle Songs about Spring, and he accompanied her on piano. Three years later, in 1954, they married, and for many years she would sing the premiere of everything he composed for soprano and advise him on vocal matters.

After earning his bachelor of music degree in 1951, Argento returned to Peabody for his master of music degree, completing it in 1954. For his PhD work, he studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and completed his degree there in 1957. Throughout his years at Peabody and Eastman and during time abroad, he studied with a prominent list of mid-twentieth-century contemporary composers, including Henry Cowell, Richard Rodgers, Alan Hovhaness, Howard Hanson, and Luigi Dallapiccola.

After an academic year in Florence, this time on a Guggenheim Fellowship, Argento and Carolyn returned to the US jobless. In September of 1958, Argento received a call from the University of Minnesota; someone at Eastman had recommended him for an open music theory teaching position. He loaded his car that day and arrived in Minneapolis in the mid-afternoon on the first day of classes.

Argento moved to a metropolitan area with a vibrant arts scene. He shared in his memoir that “I used to joke that we didn’t really unpack our bags those first couple of years in Minnesota, hoping and praying that a position would materialize on the East or West Coast, certain that remaining in Minneapolis would be artistic suicide for a promising young composer. Gradually that fear evaporated. In time it became clear that the community was very supportive of the arts.” Argento recognized the high artistic quality of the Minneapolis Symphony (later called the Minnesota Orchestra) conducted by Antal Doráti, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis. The Walker Art Center hosted many modern music events and would soon help sponsor a small opera company (later the Minnesota Opera).

In 1963, Sir Tyrone Guthrie established a theater (the Guthrie Theater), and Argento composed music for early productions. Additional supporters of Argento’s works included the Schubert Club, the Dale Warland Singers, the Fargo–Moorhead Symphony, Philip Brunelle’s Plymouth Music Series (later VocalEssence), and many individuals. He recognized by his fourth year at the university that Minneapolis would be his home for the rest of his life. If other schools offered him positions, he resolved, he would turn them down—a resolution he kept.

Most of Argento’s compositions—primarily song cycles and operas— feature the human voice. When he composed vocal works, he noted that the words must come first in his process, believing that “The very tone, texture, color and speed of the music are dependent on the text.” His operas received national and international acclaim and included Postcard from Morocco (1971), The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe (1976), Casanova’s Homecoming (1984), and The Dream of Valentino (1993). Among numerous awards, he earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf and, in 2004, a Grammy Award for his song cycle Casa Guidi.

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Blain, Terry. “Minnesota Composer Dominick Argento Was the Last Great American Romantic: A Critic’s Tribute to the Lush, Alluring Music.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 1, 2019.

Dominick Argento memorial concert program, June 18, 2019. Ted Mann Concert Hall, University of Minnesota.

PA 164
Dominick Argento papers, ca. 1950–2019
Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Description: Score manuscripts, recordings, correspondence, and other materials created and collected by composer Dominick Argento.

Hujda, Kate. “Dominick Argento Papers Acquired by Performing Arts Archives.” University of Minnesota, January 9, 2019.

Lunden, Jeff. “Dominick Argento, Literature-Loving and Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer, Dead At 91.” National Public Radio, February 22, 2019.

Page, Tim. “Dominick Argento, Composer Who Was a Modern Master of Opera, Dies at 91.” Washington Post, February 21, 2019.

Saya, Virginia. “Argento, Dominick.” Oxford Music Online.

——— . “The Current Climate for American Musical Eclecticism as Reflected in the Operas of Dominick Argento.” PhD diss., University of Cincinnati, 1989.

Related Audio

Exerpt from The Diary of Virginia Woolf | Details

Related Images

Dominick Argento
Dominick Argento
Dominick Argento at work
Dominick Argento at work
Dominick Argento memorial concert program
Dominick Argento memorial concert program

Turning Point

After earning bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at prominent East Coast universities, Dominick Argento accepts a post at the University of Minnesota in 1958. He then spends forty years teaching composition at that institution and more than fifty years composing in his adopted hometown.



Argento is born in York, Pennsylvania.


Drafted into the US Army, Argento serves in North Africa as a cryptographer.


Argento graduates from Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, with a bachelor of music degree.


Awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, Argento studies in Florence, Italy, beginning a life-long love of the city. He spends most summers there during his summer breaks from university teaching.


He earns a master of arts degree from Peabody Conservatory.


Argento marries fellow music student Carolyn Bailey.


Argento earns a PhD from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.


He is granted a Guggenheim Fellowship and returns to Florence to study.


He begins teaching music theory and composition at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, beginning a near forty-year tenure at that institution.


Argento composes The Masque of Angels for the new Center Opera Company (later the Minnesota Opera).


Argento’s song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf is awarded the Pulitzer Prize.


The University of Minnesota appoints Argento regents’ professor, the highest honor the U of M bestows on its faculty.


Argento is elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.


The National Music Theatre Award is granted to Argento for his opera Casanova’s Homecoming.


Argento receives the Founders Award from Chorus America.


He retires from the University of Minnesota with the rank of professor emeritus.


The Minnesota Orchestra names him composer laureate.


Argento earns a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Casa Guidi.


Carolyn Bailey dies in Minneapolis.


Governor Mark Dayton declares August 8 Dominick Argento Day in the state of Minnesota, recognizing him as a “master composer, revered educator, and beloved Minnesotan.”


Argento dies in Minneapolis at age ninety-one.