New music has been important at Curtis from the beginning.

Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, who played an integral role in the founding of the school in 1924, embraced contemporary music, creating a tradition that was followed by his successors. In her capacity as Curtis founder and patron to the arts, Mary Louise Curtis Bok also generously supported composers throughout her life.

This exhibit explores the history of composition of Curtis, from early students Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, to the appointment of Ned Rorem in 1980, to the department’s resurgence today.

Studying with Scalero, 1924–1946

In the early days of the Curtis Institute of Music the study of composition was typically combined with music theory. The Italian composer Rosario Scalero (1870–1954), an original member of the Curtis faculty, taught courses in Analysis, Form, and Aesthetics; Counterpoint and Instrumentation; and Composition. It was not until two years later, in 1926, that composition was described in the Catalogue as a freestanding discipline for the first time. Two years later Scalero became head of the Department of Theory and Composition, remaining in this position until his retirement in 1946. His students included Marc Blitzstein (’26), Gian Carlo Menotti (’34), Samuel Barber (’34), Nino Rota (’35), Hugo Weisgall (’39), Lukas Foss (’40), Ned Rorem (’44), Rolf Scheurer (’44), and George Walker (’45). Barber, Menotti, and Rorem later returned to Curtis as faculty members.

Students about Scalero: Gian Carlo Menotti (’34); Constant Vauclain (’39)

The Menotti years, 1941–1976

Although a number of composers taught at Curtis during the 30 years after Scalero’s departure, the period is primarily associated with Gian Carlo Menotti (1911–2007). Menotti taught composition from 1941 to 1955 (heading the department from 1946), and appeared on the faculty list again from 1965 to 1971, along with Samuel Barber. Prior to 1971 Barber had taught at Curtis for two years (1939 to 1941), when he conducted the Madrigal Chorus. (Read “Reflections of Samuel Barber” in Overtones.)

After Menotti left Curtis in 1955, composition students studied with Constant Vauclain (’39), who taught Theory and Composition from 1939 to 1963; Bohuslav Martinu, who taught Composition in the 1955–56 school year; Vittorio Giannini, who taught Composition from 1956 to 1964; and Myron Fink, who taught Music Theory from 1970 to 1973 and Composition from 1974 to 1976. Between 1963 and 1976 only three students majored in composition at Curtis, so, in 1976, the department was suspended.

Students about MenottiLee Holby (’52); Stanley Hollingsworth (’53) 

A new era, 1980–2003

In 1980 Curtis Director John de Lancie (Oboe ’40) reinstated the composition department with the appointment of Ned Rorem (’44). Rorem would direct the composition department with David Loeb, who had been teaching musical studies and music theory since 1973. Their first new composition students graduated in 1982 and 1983, followed by 27 more students before Loeb’s retirement in 2000 and Rorem’s in 2003. In 1997 Curtis President Gary Graffman (Piano ’46) had appointed Richard Danielpour to the faculty with a special mandate to bring more coordination and structure to the composition program. In 2000 Rorem and Danielpour were joined by Jennifer Higdon (’88). 2003 saw Curtis celebrate Ned Rorem’s 80th birthday with "Roremania," a two-week festival in cooperation with the Kimmel Center of the Performing Arts.  (Read “Roremania,” Overtones, 2003). Six years later David Ludwig (’01), who had been teaching musical studies at Curtis since 2002, joined the composition faculty.

Students about David Loeb: David Powell (’82); Jennifer Higdon (’88)
Students about Ned Rorem: Daron Hagen (’84); Gregory Hall (’86)
Ned Rorem about teaching at Curtis, 1980 

Composition at Curtis today

Today new music is as important as Curtis as it was when the school was founded. Curtis commissions more compositions than ever before, and the school’s contemporary music group, the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble, directed by David Ludwig, performs at Curtis and additional venues. In addition, a composer-in-residence program, introduced in 2009, enables student performers to work with composers directly.

Within this environment, composition students develop their craft according to the Curtis motto “learning by doing.”  Active collaborations with performing students, interaction with faculty and artists-in-residence, and commissioning opportunities help them prepare for 21st-century careers as musical creators. (Read “New Traditions” in Overtones.)

Richard Danielpour about teaching at Curtis, 2012


Mary Louise Curtis Bok generously supported composers throughout her life. The Curtis Institute of Music has continued this legacy by commissioning faculty, students, and alumni, aided by grants and the generous support of donors. Other commissioning opportunities for Curtis students have arisen through collaborations with the Free Library’s One Book, One Philadelphia Festival, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Rock School for Dance Education, which has commissioned ballets from Curtis composition students since 2009. In addition, donors to the school’s annual fund provide “learn by doing” opportunities for student composers through the Commissioning Circle of the Leopold Stokowski Society. The works they commission are performed on the Student Recital SeriesCurtis On Tour, and in other important school events.

DISCLAIMER: The images and documents in this exhibit are made available for purposes of education and research. The Curtis Archives has made every attempt to determine the copyright status of materials displayed, but due to the nature of archival materials we are not always able to identify this information. We are eager to hear from any rights owners, so that we may obtain accurate information. Upon request, we will remove material from public view while we address a rights issue.