Ellsworth Milburn – Menil Antiphons (1989)


Ellsworth Milburn (1938–2007) began his career as music director for the improvisational theater company Committee. He continued in show business as a composer and performer for several years, eventually serving as pianist for Second City. He even has an actor credit on his page at IMDB. However, concurrently with his show business career he was pursuing a career as a composer of contemporary music. After five years at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music he was recruited by his mentor, Paul Cooper, to be a founding member of the faculty at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.

Milburn’s humorist roots emerged in his several collaborations with Thomas Bacon, who was principal horn of the Houston Symphony during Milburn’s tenure at Rice. Their collaborations include a couple of whimsical pieces for horn and piano with toy instruments played by the audience and a horn concerto, Simon Says, that also calls on the audience to play toy instruments. By contrast, Menil Antiphons offers a window into Milburn’s more expressive and serious side.

Had George Crumb ever written chamber music that included the horn, it might have been something like Menil Antiphons. The piece was written for the opening of the Menil Collection, an art museum in Houston. It is scored for two horns, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion. The players are arranged antiphonally with the piano and percussion in the center and the winds and strings separated on the far sides. The two horn players are off-stage, one on each side, until the near the end of the piece where they come into the ensemble for a final wailing phrase. They end the piece playing crotales.

The fate of Milburn’s catalog is a cautionary tale of how common business practices of mainstream music publishers fail to serve the interests of the composers they purport to represent. His publisher was MMB Music, a publisher based in St. Louis. MMB never sold the parts for Menil Antiphons, preferring instead to rent them as requested. This had two negative consequences for the piece. The first was that it erected both logistical and financial barriers to performances and quite likely reduced the number of times it was played. The second was that no copies were distributed to institutional or personal music libraries. A Worldcat search returns only four entries, and none of them appear to include the parts.

As long as MMB was in the publishing business, a determined presenter could still perform the piece. However, a few years ago MMB shut down its publishing division. At that point Hal Leonard selected the pieces they wanted from MMB’s holdings. The rest returned to the copyright owners, including practically Milburn’s entire catalog. All of his papers as of this writing are in storage with his widow and effectively unavailable. It is unclear into whose hands they will pass once they leave hers, and one has little difficulty imagining they could be lost in the transition. One fears this is or will be the fate of a tremendous amount of music from our time. Considering that Milburn was a successful and influential composer at the top of his profession, the possibility that his papers could vanish is dismaying.

For Menil Antiphons, however, there is a happier ending. The Contemporary Hornist was able to contact Milburn’s widow and suggest to her that it should be on IMSLP. She readily agreed, and the score is now available for download. Hopefully the parts will follow soon.

The youtube performance linked here is from a CD produced in 1997 with top players from the Houston area. The horn parts are masterfully rendered by William Ver Meulen and Roger Kaza.

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