Jennifer Higdon & Musical Color

Jennifer Higdon & Musical Color

Written by: Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)

Jennifer Higdon (b. December 31, 1962) hails from Brooklyn, New York, though she was raised primarily in Georgia and Tennessee (McKinney 2011, 142). Her musical inspirations are vast, as she grew up on rock, country, and pop. This rockin’ composer cites the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as an influence on her compositional style (Reitz 2018, 7-8).

Beginning as a self-taught flutist, she took her ability further and auditioned for high school band (McKinney 2011, 143). Higdon met her high school sweetheart, and future wife, Cheryl Lawson in the flute section (Reitz 2018, 9). Isn’t that romantic?

She continued honing her flute skills at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) starting in 1981. During that time Higdon wrote her first piece, Night Creatures for flute and piano. She only minimally studied composition with the BGSU faculty, but Higdon did get an invaluable lesson from composer Philip Glass during his visit: to maintain ownership over one’s compositions. Higdon heeded his words of wisdom and established her own publishing company—named Lawdon Press, a combination of her and Lawson’s names—in 1994 (Reitz 2018, 9-10, 12).

Next, Higdon received an Artist Diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with David Loeb and Ned Rorem. Following this she completed her Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in composition at the University of Pennsylvania (10).

It was at UPenn that Higdon worked with avant-garde composer George Crumb. She explains his influence on her: “He really made me think about color, though. That was the important lesson for me, just listening to him talk about color … That really affected the way I wrote or thought, or hoped to write music” (McKinney 2011, 157). The emphasis on color can be heard in her musical works, as she always strives to experiment with the sounds (aka colors) instruments can make (Reitz 2018, 16).

This colorful composer has gone on to have a successful career since her UPenn days. She initially became famous for her Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2002 (Reitz 2018, 11). Other popular works include her blue cathedral (1999), Violin Concerto (2008), and Viola Concerto (2015). Another recent work of hers, which you’ll get to hear at our Masterworks II concert, is Dance Card (2016).

Higdon releases a lot of music because she composes several hours per day. She now only writes on commission (an impressive feat in today’s competitive industry!) and primarily releases music through her publishing company (Reitz 2018, 15-16). When she’s not composing, Higdon works at the Curtis Institute as the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies and teaches private lessons (Reitz 2018, 12).

As she writes music, Higdon strives to make her musical works have mass appeal, an influence from the pop music she grew up on (i.e., she knows what kind of music audiences enjoy). It is also because of these early musical experiences that she does not quote or reference other classical music composers (Reitz 2018, 17). She views music as a communicative tool that should be understood by anyone, regardless of their musical background (Reitz 2018, 14). How admirable is that?

Knowing this, think about what is communicated in Dance Card when you see it performed. What is your takeaway from this music? Do you hear the different “colors” that Higdon has incorporated?



McKinney, Donald. 2011. “Jennifer Higdon.” In Women of Influence in Contemporary Music, edited by Michael K. Slayton, 141-190. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Reitz, Christina L. 2018. Jennifer Higdon: Composing in Color. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

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