A Long-Lost Name Resurfaces

PalmerI guess I’ve long been the biggest Roy Harris fan left. In my youth I would occasionally run across a vinyl record of music by one of Roy Harris’s students, who wrote in a similar style, named Robert Palmer; I remember his cantata Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, but no longer have a recording. Recently, in my research into Ives, Blitzstein, and other composers, I’m starting to run into Palmer’s name again, partly because John Kirkpatrick championed his piano music and would occasionally mention him to Ives. So I went to see what remains of his music out in the world; I already had his Third Piano Sonata and some choral music, and I found a delicious Clarinet Quintet and Piano Quartet, as well as a Second Piano Sonata with a Harrisian first movement in 5/8. Palmer’s piano music tends to be rather jumpy in the asymmetric, repeated-note way so characteristic of mid-century Americana, but his chamber music drapes long lines over nostalgic harmonies bittersweetly tinged with bitonality – qualities I adore and aim for in my own music, though I’m coming from minimalism and he came from neoclassic sonata form.

I am astonished to learn that Palmer died only in 2010 – Grove doesn’t even list his end date yet – and next year will be his centenary. He lived to be 95. I wish now I had run across his name again a decade ago, for he would have been a wonderful person to interview, not only because he seemed near the center of American musical life during the WWII era but because I am hungry for more of his own music. Grove lists his most important teacher, more than Copland or Harris, as Quincy Porter, another figure whose chamber music I carry a brief for. Palmer got a teaching job in Kansas in the 1940s and soon after went to Cornell. One supposes he faded from the composition world, as “conservatives” did, due to the uprising of serialism in the ’60s, but he lived long enough to see the Americana school to which he belonged partly restored to favor, yet without seeming to have re-emerged with it. (And, insult to injury, the ubiquity of an eponymous pop star makes his music difficult to look for.) You know how saddened I am to see wonderful music go missing, and to see the producers of it go unappreciated. Presumably there are Palmer students and friends out there, and it would be nice to see his music reappear and get its due.



  1. says

    I could have sworn that I’d never heard of him, but I have two Palmers: the Piano Quartet and Carmina Amoris (this latter on a Society for New Music recording). They’re on LP, so I’ll have to convert them before listening. Thanks!

    KG replies: Yeah, he did get around a little, but perhaps his common name didn’t stick in the mind. You can download the Quartet for free here, as I did:


  2. says

    I have the score to his Sonata for Two Pianos, given to me years ago by Julius Eastman, who had a great regard for Palmer. I haven’t looked at it in a long time, but now you’ve piqued my interest again.

    KG replies: Boy, I wouldn’t have expected those two names to ever appear in the same sentence.

  3. Chris Norman says

    Nice to see obscure names like Ben Weber and Robert Palmer getting some attention. A couple of years ago I got a few pieces by both of those composers from a forum called Unsung Composers that now appears to be defunct. People were posting a huge treasure trove of deleted LPs, as well as radio broadcasts of pieces that have still never been commercially recorded – tons of American composers – Cowell, Riegger, Piston, Siegmeister, Sowerby, Creston, Robert Ward, Peter Mennin, and all sorts of other names previously unknown to me. I just downloaded everything they had, just in case it turned out to be interesting. To cut to the chase, I wanted to share the Robert Palmer pieces I managed to bag from that forum, in case they’re of interest to anyone. Here are his First and Second Symphonies, Piano Concerto, Concerto for Piano and Strings, and Chamber Concerto #1: https://www.mediafire.com/?b74u60k2wwydto6

    KG replies: Thanks very much for the generosity. I especially wanted to hear the Piano Concerto. I’ve always loved the piano concerto genre, and figure if there’s any piece by a composer I’ll learn to love, it will at least be his or her piano concerto.

    UPDATE: The regular Piano Concerto is a little wan, but the Concerto for Piano and Strings is more ambitious and just the Palmer mode I wanted to hear.

    • kea says

      “Unsung Composers” has been sort-of resurrected here – http://artmusic.smfforfree.com/

      The downloads boards require registration to view, but there are a lot of rarities unavailable elsewhere, with a particular focus on orchestral music.

      KG replies: Cool!

  4. says

    I have been and remain a Roy Harris fan but I never got to know Palmer’s music. I guess better late than never.

    KG replies: Well, when you finish Bruckner and Mahler there’s still Schmidt, and when you finish Harris, there’s Schuman and Palmer.

  5. Nac says

    Looking forward to listen to some of this stuff!

    One thing: “…I would occasionally run across a vinyl record of music by one of Roy Harris’s students, who wrote in a similar style, named Robert Palmer; I remember his cantata Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, but no longer have a recording.”

    I think “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” was by Harris himself, actually; if you have access to the online Naxos database through Bard’s library, you can find a recording of it there.

    KG replies: Thanks, I remember that too, and just found it. What seems to have happened is that Harris and Palmer both set the same poem by Vachel Lindsay.

    UPDATE: Listening now to the Harris, and it sounds lovely and Harrisian but not familiar. I’m curious now if I’d recognize the Palmer.

  6. says


    It’s a shame that we never got to speak with Robert Moffat Palmer either, but we did run a memorial to on NewMusicBox three days after his death by his former student, and friend of 40 years, Steven Stucky: http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/Remembering-Robert-Moffat-Palmer-19152010/

    Earlier this month I ventured to Bloomington, Indiana, to visit another largely overlooked composer (at least here) who might be the last survivor of that generation, Juan Orrego-Salas, who turned 95 in January! He is hailed as the greatest living Chilean composer in his homeland but he has lived in the USA longer than I have (since 1961, I was born in 1964), so he should be acknowledged as a (United States of) American composer as well. He studied with Copland and Randall Thompson, who he regards as his most important compositional mentor, and was friends with Lukas Foss, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero and William Schuman all of whom he met eitehr as a Tanglewood fellow in the late 1940s or when he returned to the USA as a Rockefeller fellow in 1954-55. Orrego-Salas’s Sextet for clarinet, piano and string quartet, from that year, is a gem of mid-century chamber music and his six symphonies are formidable achievements as is It will be the NewMusicBox cover for April 2014 so stay tuned.

    Sorry if it seems like I’m hijacking the Palmer tribute above. That was not my intent. I certainly hope that his music gets revived as well. I just thought it was important to draw the connection here in the hopes of making a larger point. Sadly, older American repertoire gets even more neglected than new music does by many of the large music institutions. Rather than constantly trotting out the same 19th century European works over and over again, orchestras and presenting organizations around the country would better serve American audiences by featuring some of these works alongside the brand new works that should be a part of every concert program! I truly believe that if these organizations showed to audiences that there is a long tradition of people based in this country who created music that is every bit as worthy of remembrance as the music of Europeans, it would do a lot to show that this form of musical expression is also something that belongs to us as a nation. I know I didn’t start caring about this music until I discovered in my teens that music like this was created on this soil as well….


    KG replies: That’s fine, Frank, I’m glad to have the information, and I did read your fine Palmer memorial. In Palmer’s case I feel a particular attraction to his style, which raises him above those whom I study just because they’re interesting and American. I do often wish I could teach graduate seminars on American music, but in my classroom I can’t start talking about Schuman and Thompson and Blitzstein and Riegger to students who don’t even know who Ives and Copland are yet, so a lot of my interests the students never find out about.

    While you’re here, glad to see my close colleague Erica Lindsay on NMBx today. She’s a freakin’ genius.

  7. Peter says

    Just looked him up in WorldCat. There are listings for 74 scores, if you want to do the interlibrary loan thing.

    KG replies: I just ordered his Clarinet Quintet score from sheetmusic.com, too. Lovely piece.