Donald Erb, Composer, 1927–2008


Donald Erb, Cleveland’s most illustrious and controversial 20th-century composer, explored fresh sonorities and forged new paths in more than 100 boldly imaginative works. He shocked the audience in 1965 when the Cleveland Orchestra first performed his Symphony of Overtures. At the end, the composer was booed and pelted with pennies.

The audience reaction to Erb’s forward-looking style was also hostile at the 1967 premiere of his Christmasmusic. Commissioned by conductor Louis Lane and the Cleveland Orchestra, the inventive piece deconstructed the Advent hymn, “O Come, Emanuel,” and required the players to hum, moan, slap mouthpieces, rattle keys and strike water bottles.

During a rehearsal of the Cleveland Orchestra’s next commission, Music for a Festive Occasion (1975), the feisty composer got into an onstage altercation with music director Lorin Maazel. As a result, the ensemble ignored Erb for nearly 15 years.

Numerous other musicians, however, embraced his distinctive style. Major orchestras, leading chamber ensembles and virtuoso soloists performed and recorded his music. The Theodore Presser Company published most of his works. Conductor Leonard Slatkin hailed the composer as a “true, unique, original, recognizable voice.”

Erb’s distinctive musical language skillfully mixes familiar tone colors with electronic sounds and the unexpected timbres of harmonicas, kazoos, police whistles and tuned water glasses. Traditional instrumental techniques are extended with multiphonics, tongue clicking and chopsticks replacing string players’ bows. Static harmonies erupt in nervous rhythms and explosive outbursts. Zigzagging lines zoom and dive to extremes of pitch and dynamics.

Erb’s mature compositions infuse his signature timbres and textures with deep emotion. Ritual Observances (1991) borrows a sorrowful fragment from Mozart’s Requiem. Evensong (1993), commissioned by music director Christoph von Dohnanyi in honor of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 75th anniversary, pays loving tribute to musical friends and concludes with a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait, “Old Bad Man.” Besides these orchestral masterpieces, Erb’s heartfelt later works include Children’s Song (1995), a brief violin duet that pours out the composer’s feelings of grief for the children who were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. “Jesus Loves Me,” the Sunday School hymn quoted in the somber piece, also appears in String Quartet No. 3 and Sunlit Peaks and Dark Valleys, a tour de force for clarinet, violin and piano.

Born in Youngstown, Ohio, on January 17, 1927, Erb started music lessons at age six with a great-aunt who taught him to play cornet during summer vacations in Kansas. During his teen years, he played jazz trumpet and arranged music for dance bands. After graduating from Lakewood High School, he served in the Navy, and then earned a bachelor’s degree in trumpet and composition from Kent State University, a master’s from the Cleveland Institute of Music and a doctorate from Indiana University. His chief mentors were Bernhard Heiden and 1962 Cleveland Arts Prize winner Marcel Dick. In addition, he studied briefly with master teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris. A self-described “foundation bum,” Erb won numerous fellowships, grants and awards. He wrote a definitive essay on orchestration for the Encyclopedia Britannica and served as resident composer at the American Academy in Rome, artist-in-residence at the University of Wollongong in Australia and composer-in-residence for the Dallas and St. Louis symphony orchestras.

Besides his achievements as a leading American composer, Erb made a name for himself as a respected teacher. He was affiliated for more than 40 years with the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he headed the composition department until his retirement in 1996. He also taught at Bowling Green, Indiana and Southern Methodist universities, and he lectured at more than 100 colleges and universities. In his classes, he often gave students advice that summed up his own dynamic approach to the creative process: “Don’t be vanilla.”

—Wilma Salisbury

Cleveland Arts Prize
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