|Francis Thorne (b. Bay
Shore, New York, June 23, 1922) is an American composer of contemporary
classical music and grandson of the writer Gustav Kobbé. His
father was a ragtime pianist and his grandfather a Wagner critic. He
was a student of Paul Hindemith at Yale University, before entering the
U.S. Navy in 1942 where he served during World War II. After the war,
he pursued a career on Wall Street and later, after Duke Ellington
heard him play the piano and arranged an engagement for him at a New
York jazz club, as a jazz pianist. From 1959 to 1961 he studied
composition in Florence with David Diamond. Diamond encouraged him to
incorporate his jazz sensitivities into his symphonic compositions. In
December 1961, his first opera, Fortuna, premiered in New York City. In
1964 Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered his Elegy
for Orchestra. In 1968 he was inducted into the American Academy and
Institute of Arts and Letters. Thorne spent much of his career
championing the works of emerging composers. He served as director of
the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation and the Thorne Music Foundation from
1965–1974, organizations which commission new works by young composers.
In 1977 he founded the American Composers Orchestra with Dennis Russell
Davies. The orchestra focuses on performing new compositions by
Many of his over 100 compositions are characterized by a distinct jazz flavor. He is also one of the first classical composers to write for the electric guitar and electric bass guitar (Sonar plexus, 1968; Liebesrock, 1968–69). A discussion of his works appears in R. Tomaro: Contemporary Compositional Techniques for the Electric Guitar in United States Concert Music.
Thorne lives in Manhattan. The Francis Thorne Papers (1956-2004) are held by the New York Public Library.
Francis Thorne’s music was not performed professionally until he was 40 years old. He had been, respectively, Naval officer, banker, stockbroker, and jazz pianist. Although he had two years of study with Paul Hindemith at Yale, Hindemith discouraged a composing career. It wasn’t until he had private studies with David Diamond in Florence, Italy, that he developed the craftsmanship and confidence to pursue a professional composing career.
Thorne’s first orchestral work after completing his studies with Diamond was Elegy for Orchestra. When Eugene Ormandy premiered it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1964, the Philadelphia Bulletin described it as “deeply felt and effective.” The success of Elegy brought Thorne back from Florence to New York, where he has been combining music administration and composing for over 35 years. His catalogue of 117 works includes seven symphonies, fifteen concerti, four string quartets, and the opera Mario and the Magician.
He has been Executive Director of the Walter M. Naumburg
and the American Composers Alliance, and President and CEO of the
American Composers Orchestra since 1976. He also spent two years as
Executive Director of Lyn Austin’s Music Theater Group and, for seven
years, he ran the Thorne Music Fund which awarded three-year
fellowships to American composers of “mature years and recognized
accomplishments.” Recipients of these fellowships included Stefan
Wolpe, Ben Weber, Lou Harrison, David Diamond, Jacob Druckman, Lucia
Dlugoszewski, and Henry Brant among others. [See
Bruce Duffie’s Interview with Lou
He has served on the Boards of the MacDowell Colony, The Manhattan School of Music, Composers Recordings, Inc., American Music Center, American Brass Quintet, the Group for Contemporary Music, the American Composers Alliance, and the Walter M. Naumburg Foundation. He has also served on the music panel of the New York State Council on the Arts.
Thorne’s awards include the American Academy of Arts and Letters, three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, two Ford Foundation Recording Awards, a Fairleigh Dickinson University Award, the ACA Laurel Leaf Award, a BMI Certificate of Excellence for service to American music, and residencies with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Cabrillo Festival (three times), Harvard University, Connecticut College, and the New Hampshire Music Festival.
He has received commissions from, among others, the Seattle Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Albany Symphony (three times), Youngstown and Shreveport Symphonies, Valerie Bettis Dance Company, New Haven and Springfield Symphonies, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Cabrillo Festival as well as numerous chamber ensembles. Other important orchestral performances have been with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, the Denver Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, the Kansas City Philharmonic, the New York Pops Orchestra, the Guggenheim Concert Band, the Westchester Philharmonic, and American Composers Orchestra.
Thorne lives with his wife, Ann, in New York City. He has three daughters and four grandsons. His music is published by Merion Music (Theodore Presser Company), C.F. Peters, and General Music, and is recorded on New World Records, CRI, Louisville and Serenus.
He was elected in 1988 to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also belongs to the American Composers Alliance, American Music Center, and is currently a member of the Century Association and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI).
This interview was recorded on the telephone on May 3,
1986. Portions were used (along with
recordings) on WNIB in 1987, 1992
and 1997. A copy of the audio tape was given to the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. The
transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.