A Becker premiere in Saint Paul

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Wednesday, May 20, 2020

These days composer John J. Becker is almost totally forgotten, but back in the 1930s his name was linked with Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell, and Wallingford Riegger as one of the so-called "American Five" composers of what was dubbed "ultra-modern" music.

From 1928 to 1935, Becker taught at the College of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and briefly assembled a "Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra" to give Midwest premieres of works by Ives and other ultra-modernists. From 1935 to 1941, Becker was the Minnesota State director of the Federal Music Project, one of President Roosevelt's initiatives to provide work for American musicians during the Depression years.

On today's date in 1937, at the old St. Paul Auditorium, Becker conducted the Federal Music Project's Twin Cities Orchestra in a program that included the premiere performance of his own Symphony No. 3, subtitled "Symphonia Brevis."

This "ultra-modern" symphony was met with an "ultra-conservative" review in The Saint Paul Pioneer Press, whose critic wrote: "It consists of spasmodic little excursions… percussive barrages… ideas that seem to run out before the score comes to a close, with the consequent suggestion of that spurious vitality exhibited by decapitated fowls."

Decades later, three years before his death in 1961, Becker, along with a few other surviving members of the "American Five," was invited to take a bow from the stage of Carnegie Hall at one of Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic concerts which featured his "Sinfonia Brevis."