Leslie Bassett Passes

Leslie BassettPulitzer Prize-winning composer Leslie Bassett died on February 4, 2016 in a continuing care facility in Oakwood, Ga. A  sought after composer, Bassett was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1966 for his Variations for Orchestra (1963). His music has been performed by the major orchestras of New York including ACO, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston and Los Angeles.  Other performers include the Juilliard and Concord string quartets and pianist Gilbert Kalish. Bassett’s music has been recorded on many labels, among them New World, Composers Recordings (CRI), Crystal, Albany and MMC.Bassett’s large catalog included roughly 125 works in nearly every genre, except for opera.

Bassett was also a serious and beloved teacher at the University of Michigan for 40 years (1952-92). “Rugged instruction is essential. Of course one looks for the kind of imagination that over‑rides the rules. But one must first have the craft. Composing is done by individuals. One makes a decision every time a note is written about what is beautiful.

ACO Artistic Director, Derek Bermel writes:

Leslie Bassett: a composer who wrote luminous music of impeccable architecture, a master of form – symphonic, chamber, and band. He would craft bold, stacked pyramids of sound, but also a delicate, icy chord-island in a lake of reverberating silence. I arrived at the University of Michigan just after he retired, but was fortunate to perform many works under his guidance: Soliloquies for solo clarinet, Arias for clarinet and piano, and his vln/cl/pno trio, among others.  He generously gave lessons at his house to students living in Ann Arbor, and I took advantage of his gracious offer as often as possible. As a teacher, he demanded attention to clarity and detail, but also encouraged spontaneity and “living the moment” in real time.  His compassion and empathy always shone through.

Growing up in California, he played trombone in jazz bands – a sound that echoes in his music – and later served in World War II; he endured sickness, physical hardship, and the harrowing loss of a child at a young age, all with uncommon dignity. Through it all, he composed steadily and prodigiously. Truly a composer from the ‘Greatest Generation’, Leslie Bassett was a man of great rectitude and decency, admired greatly and loved dearly by his colleagues, students, friends, and family.

ACO performed the New York Premiere of Leslie’s From a Source Evolving in October of 1991 at Carnegie Hall. listen here:


Leslie Bassett’s program note for From a Source Evolving:

From a Source Evolving is a sort of conceptual double‑helix in which a musical seed becomes the subject of itself. “The musical source for this work is the chord, and its ‘double‑shot’ rhythm, heard in the piano in the first measure. The chord is Schoenbergian, it is moved and transposed throughout the work but it doesn’t function serially. It’s a source in itself rather than a source for a procedure. It’s simple-minded, perhaps, but effective, a nugget from which many other things unfold. And, my father was a source. He died in 1977, after living into his early 80’s. I was fond of him. He was a rancher in California. By coincidence, the piece was completed on his birthday.