Meet the Artist – Jennifer Higdon, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

The joy of discovering new things in music inspired me. I was self-taught, and I just found the notion of making music such a thrilling adventure.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I think a composer draws inspiration from all of the events in their lives. But looking back, I’m pretty sure some of the music I listened to when I was young provided some serious influence…the Beatles in particular. My flute teacher, Judith Bentley was also a huge influence. And then there are all of my colleagues…they continue to inspire me every day.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Starting out in my undergrad not knowing much of anything about classical music was an incredible challenge. For a long time I felt that I was climbing a huge mountain of knowledge, trying to pick up as many “pebbles” as I could manage to carry. But every step made me smarter and stronger. Along the way, I realized that one spends an entire lifetime learning.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Every piece is a challenge. To create something from nothing is a big thing. Sometimes I’m learning about a particular instrument’s needs (I just finished a tuba concerto…so I studied a lot of the repertoire and talked with various players to get a sense of what would be ideal in the piece). Other times, I’m trying to craft something that works for the performer(s). Then there is the challenge of getting notes on a page, which I hope the performer and listener will find interesting.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I don’t think it’s possible to make a generalization about this (I’m so lucky to be able to work with such a huge assortment of performers)…each piece is different and the challenges and pleasures change daily and yearly.

Of which works are you most proud?

I don’t know if it’s possible to be proud of one particular work. They all reflect so many things for me. But the one that feels very personal is “Blue Cathedral” … it seems to affect so many people. I’m sometimes surprised at how many instrumentalists and composers tell me this is the first piece of contemporary music that they encountered when they were younger. Even more surprising is how many people have performed it more than once. That’s one of the things that makes it special.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I let other people decide that for themselves.

How do you work?

I try to work every day, composing 4-6 hours a day: consistently, persistently, and conscientiously.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Impossible to name as there are literally thousands!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I’m lucky to have had many incredible and memorable experiences. One of the most life changing was the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of my “Concerto for Orchestra” which took place at the League of American Orchestras’ Conference. My life changed over night after that performance. Suddenly I was known, and commissions started coming in.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Make sure you love what you’re doing, as you’ll spend so much of your waking time doing it. Work hard and do it to the best of your ability. Share the joy with as many other people as you can.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Composing in my studio

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Composing in my studio


Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon (b. Brooklyn, NY, December 31, 1962) is one of America’s most acclaimed and most frequently performed living composers. Higdon started late in music, teaching herself to play flute at the age of 15 and beginning formal musical studies at 18, with an even later start in composition at the age of 21. Despite this late beginning, she has become a major figure in contemporary Classical music and makes her living from commissions. These commissions represent a range of genres, including orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and wind ensemble.

Higdon holds a Ph.D. and a M.A. in Music Composition from the University of Pennsylvania, a B.M. in Flute Performance from Bowling Green State University, and an Artist Diploma in Music Composition from The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Hailed by the Washington Post as “a savvy, sensitive composer with a keen ear, an innate sense of form and a generous dash of pure esprit,” her works have been performed throughout the world, and are enjoyed by audiences at several hundred performances a year and on over sixty CDs. Higdon’s orchestral work, blue cathedral, is one of the most performed contemporary orchestral compositions by a living American with more than 600 performances worldwide since its premiere in 2000.

Her list of commissioners and performing organizations is extensive and includes The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Chicago Symphony, The Atlanta Symphony, The Baltimore Symphony, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, The London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Luzern Sinfonieorchester, The Hague Philharmonic, The Melbourne Symphony, The New Zealand Symphony, The Pittsburgh Symphony, The Indianapolis Symphony, The Dallas Symphony, as well as such groups as the Tokyo String Quartet, eighth blackbird, and the President’s Own Marine Band. Higdon has worked with musicians that include Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Hilary Hahn, and Yuja Wang.

Her Percussion Concerto won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in January, 2010. Higdon also received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, with the committee citing Higdon’s work as “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.”

Among her national honors, Higdon has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters (two awards), the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP. She was also honored by the Delaware Symphony with the A.I. DuPont Award for her contributions to the symphonic literature. Most recently, she was awarded the Distinguished Arts Award by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett.

Higdon has been a featured composer at many festivals including Aspen, Tanglewood, Vail, Norfolk, Grand Teton, and Cabrillo. She has served as Composer-in-Residence with several orchestras across the country including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony, the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, the Wheeling Symphony and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Higdon was also honored to serve as one of the Creative Directors of the Boundless Series for the Cincinnati Symphony.

One of Higdon’s most current project was an opera based on the best-selling novel, Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. It was co-commissioned by Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. All performances in Santa Fe were sold out and Higdon’s opera became the third-highest grossing opera in the company’s history at Opera Philadelphia. Higdon recently won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere.

Dr. Higdon currently holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies at The Curtis Institute of Music, where she has inspired a generation of young composers and musicians. Her music is published exclusively by Lawdon Press.

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