Professor Emeritus Leslie Bassett Has Died

Leslie Bassett, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who taught at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance for 40 years, died on Thursday, February 4 in Oakwood, GA. He was 93.

Bassett, who received his MM and DMA at Michigan (the University’s first DMA, in 1956), was the Albert A. Stanley Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Composition. He taught from 1952-92, served as chair of the Department of Composition from 1970-85, and was the 1984 Henry Russel Lecturer, the University’s highest faculty honor. He was also one of the founding members of the U-M’s Electronic Music Studio and oversaw the Contemporary Music Performance Project, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Bassett received the 1966 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Variations for Orchestra, which was premiered in Rome in 1963 by the RAI Symphony Orchestra. Other honors included the Prix de Rome (1961-63), Guggenheim Fellowships (1973, 1980), a Fulbright Fellowship to Paris (1950-51), the Naumburg Recording Award (1974), awards from the Koussevitsky Music Foundation (1971, 1991) and the National Endowment for the Arts, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Many of the world’s most prestigious orchestras have performed Bassett’s compositions including those of Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Zurich, and Rome. His string quartets have been performed by such ensembles as the Juilliard, Pro Arte, and Concord Quartets, and his music for wind ensembles and bands has been widely played. He also has a substantial catalogue of works for chamber music, soloists, singers, and choirs.

Among the many successful composers that Bassett taught and mentored at Michigan were Sidney Hodkinson, Roger Reynolds, John Anthony Lennon, Arthur Gottschalk, Frank Ticheli, Derek Bermel, and Gabriela Frank.

Born in Hanford, CA, (January 23, 1923), Bassett subsequently studied piano, trombone, cello and other instruments, then served as trombonist, composer, and arranger with the 13th Armored Division Band in the U.S. and Europe during World War II.

After the war, he earned his undergraduate degree at California State University in Fresno, arriving at Michigan in 1947 for graduate study with Ross Lee Finney. This was followed by work in Paris as a Fulbright fellow with Arthur Honegger at the Ecole Normale de Musique and with Nadia Boulanger at her home. He returned to Michigan as a member of the faculty in 1952 and later studied electronic music with Mario Davidovsky the Spanish-British composer Roberto Gerhard. His wife, Anita Denniston Bassett, is also an alumna of U-M’s composition department.

In 1976, Bassett was among a selection of celebrated artists that were interviewed for the book Artists as Professors (University of Illinois Press) by Morris Risenhoover and Robert T. Blackburn. He was asked: “What do you think has happened to your creative output as a result of your affiliation with a university?” Basset answered: “For me, I can’t imagine another life in which I could have done what I’ve done. I give great credit to having been in a university as a stimulus to my work.”

Leslie Bassett’s papers, from 1946-2005 are housed at Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, and include correspondence, recordings, news clippings, speeches, photographs, and many of his music compositions, including original manuscripts, publisher’s galley proofs, and published scores.

Gifts in memory of Leslie Bassett or his wife Anita, who passed away four weeks after Professor Bassett, can be directed to the Leslie and Anita Bassett Endowed Scholarship Fund for music composition students at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, 2005 Baits Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2075 or (734) 647-2035.

An obituary for Professor Bassett was published in the Detroit Free Press on the day of his death.