Bacon, Ernst, 1898-

Birth 1898

Biographical notes:


Ernst Bacon was born in 1898 in Chicago, but moved to the San Francisco area in the 1920s and soon occupied a prominent role in the musical life of Northern California. Under his directorship, the San Francisco Federal Music Project achieved widespread popular acclaim, as the papers in the collection attest. Many Bay Area citizens and reporters supported Bacon in his conflict with the State and National Directors of the Federal Music Project. Bacon left San Francisco in 1938, the year following his dismissal, and proceeded to teach, compose, and direct in the East, receiving much critical acclaim. He returned to San Francisco in the 1960s and lived in the Bay Area for the remainder of his life.

From the guide to the Ernst Bacon Papers, 1933-1986, (Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.)


This collection represents a compilation of correspondence received by Ernst Bacon, and a few carbons of letters by him, between 1910 and 1989. During this time Bacon was an active participant in the musical community of the U.S., while maintaining friendships and collaborations with a variety of artists and musicians, both domestically and in Europe. Bacon and his wife were also active in the late 1920s and early 1930s in assisting artists and musicians to escape the growing Nazi movement. Bacon worked as a conductor and composer, as well as a professor of music. He directed the San Francisco Federal Music Project from 1935-1937. The majority of the correspondence, however, postdates this period and is generally of a more personal than professional nature. Some of the letters involve either soliciting recommendations or forwarding copies of recommendations for various honors among Bacon and his colleagues. Bacon's own accomplishment of achieving a Guggenheim Fellowship is recorded in a letter from the Guggenheim Foundation included in the collection.

From the guide to the Bacon, Ernst. Papers, 1926-1990, (Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.)


Bacon, Ernst (b. Chicago, IL, 26 May 1898; d. Orinda, CA, 16 Mar 1990). Composer and pianist. He studied at Northwestern University (1915-18), the University of Chicago (1919-20), and the University of California (M.A. 1935) [where his master's thesis was the choral cantata The Song of the Preacher (1935)]. Among his teachers were Alexander Raab and G. D. Dunn (piano), Weigl and Bloch (composition), and Goosens (conducting), under whom he was assistant conductor of the Rochester Opera Company. He taught at the Eastman School (1925-28) and the San Francisco Conservatory (1928-30); in 1935 he instituted and conducted the Carmel Beach Festival in California, and the next year he was supervisor of the WPA Federal Music Project in San Francisco and conductor of its orchestra. Subsequent teaching appointments took him to Converse College, Spartanburg, South Carolina, as dean and professor of piano (1938-45), and to Syracuse University, as director of the school of music and professor (1945-63, professor emeritus from 1964). Among his honors are a Pulitzer Award (1932, for the Symphony in D minor) and two Guggenheim Fellowships.

As a composer Bacon is best known for his songs, which show unusual sensitivity to the color and inflection of words and a masterly use of syncopation to give the impression of natural speech. He preferred short poems with a "certain philosophical undercurrent together with a relatively simple and not-too-involved lyricism" and has been most successful with his settings of texts by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. He has also made many arrangements of American folk music. Our Musical Idiom (1917), his early study of new harmonies, pointed the direction he was to follow, one close to tradition. Yet his style is individual, finding its own basis in nondiatonic scales, American subjects, and a masterly counterpoint. 22 of his Dickinson songs have been recorded by Helen Boatwright with the composer at the piano. In addition to composing, Bacon performed as a pianist in Europe and the USA, and he had also shown talent as a painter. His published writings include Words on Music (1960) and Notes on the Piano (1963).

- - The New Grove Dictionary of American Music

From the guide to the Ernst Bacon Papers, 1926-1987, (The Music Library)


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  • American literature--20th century


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