In Memoriam: Andrew Imbrie

By Robert P. Commanday, San Francisco Classical Voice
Tuesday December 11, 2007

Andrew Imbrie, distinguished composer and senior in the Bay Area’s community of composers and teachers of composition, died Wednesday at his home in Berkeley after a long illness. He was 86. 

He had composed a great corpus of music, works in all of the principal genres, including two operas. One of these, Angle of Repose, based on the late Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, commissioned and performed in 1976 by the San Francisco Opera, received national acclaim. He wrote symphonies and concertos that were performed here by the San Francisco and Oakland symphonies. 

Composing was his life, occupying him almost exclusively. He never stopped, even in this year completing four works, though his health had been failing for some time. The last complete one, Sextet for Six Friends, introduced by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble in San Francisco, Mill Valley, and Sonoma last February, was remarkably direct and clear. It was one of the more immediately engaging of all his works. Early next year, a clarinet quintet’s first movement that he finished last month will be played in Boston by Richard Stoltzman and the Borromeo String Quartet. 

His music is unique and individual, independent of any trend, current, or school, recognized by its very personal, often passionate expressiveness and the underlying vocal nature of his melodic impulse. What controls and guides the forces of Imbrie’s music is first a dialectic process, the musical idea generating both its own continuity and its contrasting response, and second his grasp of the whole, a vision of the music’s destiny. At the highest level of integrity, it has always reflected masterful craftsmanship. 

Elliott Carter, America’s most eminent composer, recalls that Imbrie “was a wonderful composer, wrote beautiful, elegant, and sensitive music. I liked him very much personally. He was an absolutely most interesting, amusing, and profound man.” The composer Wayne Peterson describes him as “a completely honest and for many years, the leading composer in the Bay Area. His work has had a great influence on my own music and many people had been influenced by him. He had lived a great life.” Alan Rich, a prominent music critic in Los Angeles, writes, “Most of my awareness of new music and its struggles for existence I owe to Andrew in my Berkeley years: the strengths in his music—the quartets, the violin concerto, that spacious and glorious opera—and the strengths in the way he could argue music’s cause. It made me proud to know him, and it still does.” 


A rich life 

Imbrie was born in New York City in 1921 and raised in Princeton, N.J. He graduated from Princeton University. He developed great skill and fluency at the keyboard through early training as a pianist with noted teachers Pauline and Leo Ornstein, Olga Samaroff, Rosalyn Tureck, and Robert Casadesus. Composition supplanted piano as a career aspiration after a summer studying with Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau, France, while working with Roger Sessions, his major teacher and inspiration both during his Princeton years and later at UC Berkeley, where he earned his master’s degree. 

Before that he served in the U.S. Army as a cryptanalytic translator of Japanese and immediately after spent two years composing while a resident of the American Academy in Rome. His career had already been launched in 1947 when his senior thesis at Princeton, the first of five string quartets he was to compose, was awarded the New York Critics’ Award and recorded by the Juilliard Quartet. 

Imbrie joined the faculty of the UC Berkeley music department in 1949, teaching there until his retirement in 1991. He also taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, at Brandeis University and after 1991 at the universities of Chicago, Alabama, and British Columbia, at Harvard, New York, and Northwestern universities, the Sand Point Music Festival, and as composer-in-residence at the Tanglewood Music Center. He was given the Alice M. Ditson Award (1947), the National Institute of Arts and Letters Grant (1950), the Boston Symphony Merit Award and Brandeis Creative Arts Award (1957), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1953, 1959), the Walter Hinrichsen Award (1971), and UC Berkeley’s Berkeley Citation (1991). 

His commissions include those from the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Opera, the Pro Arte Quartet, Francesco Trio, Ford and Naumburg Foundations, and the Halle Orchestra. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (from 1969) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (since 1980) and served on the board of the Koussevitzky Foundation. 

His compositions ranged widely in genre and included three symphonies, eight concertos, many songs, sonatas, chamber works for diverse instrumental combinations, and choral compositions that revealed his unerring and sensitive ear for the chorus as a complex and human instrument—five that were major works with orchestra. Notable were Drumtaps (to Whitman), Prometheus Bound (to Greene after Aeschylus), and Adam (to medieval and Civil War texts), commissioned and performed in 1994 by Boston’s Cantata Singers. It was praised by Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer as a “fully achieved and masterly work” and in a musical language “infinitely resourceful and responsive.” The grandest and most moving of these choral works was the Requiem (1984), in memory of his youngest son, John, which set elements of traditional liturgy reflected in poems by Blake, George Herbert, and Donne. 

Imbrie is survived by his wife, Barbara, and his son Andrew Philip, of Santa Clara. The funeral services will be at St. Clement’s Church in Berkeley (2837 Claremont Blvd.) at 4 p.m on Dec. 12. 


Robert P. Commanday was the music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley. He was the founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, where this first appeared.