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My Memories of Composer Stephen Paulus

Stephen Paulus

It has to be 30 years ago now; I was sitting in a cafe with composers JenniferHigdon, Rob Maggio, Sylvia Glickman, and a fellow in town from Minnesota, who was advising us on a composer organization start-up. He was already well known in composer circles as the one who, with Libby Larsen, began in Minnesota what became the largest composer service organization in the world, the American Composers Forum. 

His name was Stephen Paulus. He died at age 65 on Sunday, October 19th. He had suffered a debilitating stroke on July 4th, 2013, saddening musicians and audiences everywhere. Now we mourn.

At that table, his enthusiasm and positive energy were contagious, but I remember most of all his kindness. His music reflects that, too. A few months ago I programmed a short work, his Prelude No. 3 for piano, on WRTI's contemporary American music program Now Is the Time. "Sprightly" is Paulus's subtitle, and it encapsulates what I always hear in his music—be it choral, orchestral, operatic. From his more than 500 works, what I always hear is simplicity (even with complicated materials) and melodic openness.

(We're re-broadcasting this show on Saturday, November 1st, 9 pm on HD-2 and streaming at wrti.org.)

This excerpt from his Organ Concerto, performed by Alan Morrison with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia on January 19th, 2014, shows, through all the gnarled chromaticism and virtuosic display, an element of—what shall I call it?—friendliness.

Stephen Paulus Organ Concerto, Finale. Alan Morrison, organ, Dirk Brosse conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia:


So I remember Stephen Paulus from his music, from his work as a composer advocate, and from that one meeting at a Center City restaurant 30 years ago. Some of us there were young, some of us, unbelievably young. Stephen was seven years older than I, but with seeming decades more experience, he looked like he was 17. Thirty years later, he still did: always smiling, always youthful. That was the only time I met Stephen Paulus, but people all over are saying the same things. He was always generous, always supportive, always working, always positive, and kind, kind, kind.

Read Minnesota Public Radio's appreciation ofthe legacy of Stephen Paulus here.

Here is his Pilgrim's Hymn, perhaps his most-heard work: