Music News The Tattoo

From opera to Jefferson, an American composer makes his mark

Neely Bruce at Wesleyan University, 2009. (Kiernan Majerus-Collins/YJI)

MIDDLETOWN, Connecticut, U.S.A. — With curly salt and pepper hair and a casual style, Neely Bruce looks like a composer. It’s no surprise he’s spent more than half his life as a composition professor at Wesleyan University.

Bruce, 65, who has a warm Southern charm to match his slight accent, started making music early in life.

“I started composing when I was nine years old,” he said outside an auditorium where an orchestra rehearsed his work.By the age of 12, I wrote a suite of piano pieces.”

Bruce performed those pieces, Suite Fantastic, in 1994 in honor of his 50th birthday. He said it was stimulating to play some of his earliest pieces, and did so again in 2004.

Composer Neely Bruce checking the musical score as one of his pieces is rehearsed. (YJI)

Of his many hundreds of pieces, Bruce said one that he really likes is his opera, Hansel and Gretel.

“It’s been such a success,” the professor said.

Commissioned by Connecticut Opera, where Bruce served as chorus director until the opera organization dissolved earlier this year, the full production of Hansel and Gretel debuted at The Bushnell in Hartford in 1998.

In the opera, the main characters push the evil witch into her oven at the climax of the action, and then “they dance around the oven,” Bruce says.

Other companies have since performed the work, and Bruce said that at a more recent show at the University of Illinois in May, the director used modern dance throughout.

“The thing that made it really, really good was the dancing,” Bruce said. “The cast was very good.”

Last spring, the Nutmeg Symphony Orchestra performed the Connecticut premiere of Bruce’s Introduction and Grand March.

The piece used aspects of two of Bruce’s favorite composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Charles Ives.  

“The piece is based on excerpts from seven operas of Mozart’s,” Bruce said. Bruce used those opera excerpts to write a march in the style of Ives.

In composing Introduction and Grand March, Bruce used some surprising methods to decide which pieces of the operas to include.

He selected musical phrases from some of Mozart’s operas at random, he said. He did it by rolling dice and grabbing random photocopied bits of music from a larger pool of the Mozart excerpts he’d assembled.

Bruce said he weighted one opera in particular, The Abduction from the Seraglio, by making more excerpts from that opera than from the others.

In doing so, he would have a higher percentage from that opera than from the others included in the work.

“In Vienna, when Mozart lived, the Turks were still there,” explained Bruce. He said the Turks invented modern percussion.

“They had these bands that would march through the streets of Vienna,” he said.

Consequently, in his Introduction and Grand March, Bruce said, “I emphasize a lot of percussion.”

Though Bruce has found useful musical ideas across the world, his fundamental interests are American music and history. At Wesleyan, he teaches both music composition and American studies.

Reporter’s notebook Turning pages for a musical genius

He’s one of only 19 living composers included in The Sacred Harp, a book of early American-style songs.

He’s composed pieces about Benedict Arnold, Mark Twain’s neighborhood, African Americans in Connecticut and set the Bill of Rights to music.

Bruce wrote a piece about Thomas Jefferson, entitled Young T. J., for the Virginia Glee Club. It was performed at Monticello and at the Jefferson Memorial, with President Bill Clinton in attendance, and broadcast nationally.

His work includes original music for three documentaries aired on National Public Television’s The American Experience, as well as for documentaries that aired on Connecticut Public Television.

Bruce, a versatile composer who writes in many styles, can’t be easily categorized. With his boundless enthusiasm and diverse interests, there’s no telling what he’ll do next.

Kiernan Majerus-Collins is a Senior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.


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