William Mayer

(b. 18 November 1925, New York, New York – d. 16 November 2017, New York, New York).

American composer of mostly stage, orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and piano works that have been performed throughout the world.

Mr. Mayer was the son of the businessman and amateur violinist John Mayer and the writer Dorothy Ehrich Mayer. He studied at Yale University in 1944 and 1947–48, where he earned his BA. He studied composition with Roger Sessions at the Juilliard School in New York, New York in 1949 and with Felix Salzer at Mannes College The New School for Music in New York, New York from 1949–52, where he received a diploma in music theory and composition. He later studied conducting privately with Emanuel Balaban in New York, New York in the mid-1960s, orchestration privately with Otto Luening and electronic music with Pril Smiley at the Computer Music Center of Columbia University.

Among his honours were the Peabody Award (1958, for Hello, World!), a recording grant from the Ford Foundation (1967), the Guggenheim Fellowship (1968), two residencies at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire (1969, 1986), two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1976, 1988), a citation for "outstanding new American opera of the year" from the National Institute for Music Theater (1983, for A Death in the Family), a recording grant from the Society for American Music (1996, to underwrite the CD Distant Playing Fields), and an award for lifetime achievement from the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York, New York (1997).

He was also active in other positions. He served as a counterintelligence agent in the US Army in 1945–46. He undertook various assignments for the United States Information Agency from the 1960s–70s, including articles for its magazine Amerika, a lecture series on operas from the USA and an engagement as moderator for the first meeting between Aaron Copland and Aram Khachaturian in New York, New York in 1967. In addition, he wrote the article Live Composers, Dead Audiences for The New York Times Magazine in 1975. He served as a trustee of Composers Recordings, Inc. from 1968–2002 and as chair of its board from 1981–84, as well as chair of the Nominating Committee of ASCAP from 1988–92.

He gave lectures and seminars at various institutions, including Boston University, Columbia University, the Juilliard School, and Yale University.

He was married to the artist Meredith Nevins Mayer until his death and was the father of the pianist Steven Mayer, the investigative reporter Jane Mayer and the financial analyst Cynthia Mayer.

His primary publisher is the Theodore Presser Co.



COMPLETE LIST OF WORKS (note that publishers other than the Theodore Presser Co. are mentioned in parentheses after dates of composition)


Hello, World! (participatory work for children's concerts, choreography by Ursula Melita, text by Susan Otto), dance troupe, 2 child actors, orchestra, 1956 (also concert version for female voice–speaker/male voice–speaker, orchestra) (Boosey & Hawkes)

One Christmas Long Ago (opera in 1 act, libretto by the composer, after Why the Chimes Rang by Raymond Macdonald Alden), 2 boy sopranos/sopranos, soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, high baritone, baritone, mixed chorus, orchestra, 1962 (also shorter concert version of one section as Festive Alleluia, mixed chorus, organ) (WillMayer Music)

The Snow Queen (ballet, choreography by Sophie Maslow, scenario by the composer, after Hans Christian Andersen), dance troupe, flute, cello, 2 pianos, percussion, 1963 (a concert suite was arranged as Scenes from 'The Snow Queen', small orchestra/large orchestra; also concert version for 2 pianos; also version [choreography by Ursula Melita] for dance troupe, orchestra, 1971)

Brief Candle (mini-opera in 3 acts, libretto by Milton Feist), female mime, mixed chorus, piano/small orchestra, 1976

A Sobbing Pillow of a Man (dramatic aria, text by James Agee), baritone, comprimario rôles (soprano, 2 altos, bass), piano, 1980

A Death in the Family (opera in 3 acts, libretto by the composer, after James Agee, adapted by Tad Mosel), boy soprano, 2 sopranos, 4 mezzo-sopranos, alto, 2 tenors, 2 baritones, bass-baritone, mixed chorus, orchestra, fixed media (2 tracks), 1983 (a concert suite was arranged for mixed chorus, piano; also concert versions of two sections: Last Song, soprano/high mezzo-soprano, clarinet, violin, piano; Kitchen duet, soprano, baritone, piano) (WillMayer Music)


The Greatest Sound Around (animal contest, text by Susan Otto), baritone–speaker, orchestra, 1955 (version of section of Children's songs) (WillMayer Music)

Hello, World!, female voice–speaker/male voice–speaker, orchestra, 1956 (concert version of stage work) (Boosey & Hawkes)

Andante for Strings, 16 or more strings, 1956 (version of work for string quartet) (European American Music Distributors Co.)

Concert Piece for Trumpet and Strings, trumpet, small orchestra (percussion, 16 or more strings), 1957 (also version as Concert Piece for Trumpet and Piano) (Boosey & Hawkes)

Overture for an American, large orchestra, 1958 (Boosey & Hawkes)

Two Pastels for Orchestra, 1960 (European American Music Distributors Co.)

Scenes from 'The Snow Queen', small orchestra/large orchestra, 1966 (concert suite from ballet)

Octagon (concerto), piano, orchestra, 1971 (also version for 2 pianos) (European American Music Distributors Co.)

Inner and Outer Strings, string quartet, 26 or more strings, 1982 (European American Music Distributors Co.)

Of Rivers and Trains, small orchestra (20 players)/large orchestra, 1988 (WillMayer Music)

Good King Wenceslas (fantasy, text by A. A. Milne), female speaker/male speaker, orchestra, 1996 (version of vocal work) (WillMayer Music)


Andante for Strings, string quartet, 1951 (also version for 16 or more strings) (European American Music Distributors Co.)

Song for English Horn, English horn, piano, 1951 (WillMayer Music)

Song for Oboe, oboe, piano, 1952 (WillMayer Music)

Essay for Brass and Winds, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, percussion, 1954 (WillMayer Music)

Celebration Trio, flute, clarinet, piano, 1956 (WillMayer Music)

Concert Piece for Trumpet and Piano, trumpet, piano, 1957 (version of Concert Piece for Trumpet and Strings) (Boosey & Hawkes)

Country Fair, 2 B-flat trumpets, trombone, 1958

Two Moods for Solo Clarinet, clarinet, 1960

Brass Quintet, French horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, 1965

Three for Three, piano, 2 percussion, 1967 (WillMayer Music)

Back Talk (instrumental-theatre work), page-turner, ensemble (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano, percussion), 1970

Messages, flute, violin, viola, cello, percussion/2 percussion, 1973

Appalachian Echoes, harp, 1975

Yankee Doodle Fanfare, French horn, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, 1976 (also version for flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, bassoon, 1976) (Ensemble Publications)

Dream's End, oboe, clarinet, French horn, violin, cello, piano, 1976

Wedding Romp, bassoon, violin, 1985 (WillMayer Music)

Unlikely Neighbors, flute, oboe, clarinet, trombone, piano, 1991 (WillMayer Music)

Summer Glints (vocalise), countertenor, flute, oboe, harpsichord, string quartet, 2002 (WillMayer Music)

Twists, oboe, viola, 2008 (WillMayer Music)


To Electra (madrigal, text by Robert Herrick), mixed chorus, 1951 (WillMayer Music)

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (madrigal, text by Christopher Marlowe), mixed chorus, 1952 (WillMayer Music)

The Nymph's Reply to the Passionate Shepherd (madrigal, text by Sir Walter Raleigh), mixed chorus, 1952 (WillMayer Music)

Corinna's Going a-Maying (madrigal, text by Robert Herrick), mixed chorus, 1952 (WillMayer Music)

Festive Alleluia, mixed chorus, organ, 1963 (shorter concert version of section of One Christmas Long Ago) (WillMayer Music)

Kyrie (text from the words "kyrie eleison"), mixed chorus, 1965 (WillMayer Music)

The Eve of St. Agnes (dramatic oratorio, text by John Keats), 2 sopranos, tenor, baritone, mixed chorus, piano/orchestra, 1968

Letters Home (dramatic oratorio, texts from letters written by soldiers from the USA, Vietnam), male speaker, mixed chorus, orchestra, 1968 (European American Music Distributors Co.)

Lines on Light (texts by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dylan Thomas, the composer), female chorus, piano, 1971 (one section may be performed separately: Silent Icicles Quietly Shining) (WillMayer Music)

Spring Came on Forever (dramatic oratorio, texts by Vachel Lindsay, James Stephens, Langston Hughes, anonymous 16th-century song Westron Wynde, the Song of Solomon, the composer), mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, mixed chorus, orchestra, 1974

La Belle Dame sans Merci (text by John Keats), tenor, mixed chorus (sopranos, altos, basses), 1976 (Warner/Chappell Music)

A Death in the Family, mixed chorus, piano, 1983 (concert suite from opera) (WillMayer Music)

The Negro Speaks of Rivers (text by Langston Hughes), 5 mixed voices, piano, 1992 (also version for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, piano) (WillMayer Music)

Ae Fond Kiss (text by Robert Burns), mixed chorus, flute, cello, piano, 1993 (Warner/Chappell Music)


That Purple Bird (text by the composer), soprano/mezzo-soprano/tenor, piano, 1950 (WillMayer Music)

Paradox (text by Marjorie Marx), soprano, piano, 1952 (WillMayer Music)

For a Young Man (text by Marjorie Marx), soprano/tenor, piano, 1953 (WillMayer Music)

Children's songs (text by Susan Otto), baritone–speaker, piano, 1952–55 (also version of one section, The Greatest Sound Around, for baritone–speaker, orchestra) (WillMayer Music)

Barbara, What have you Done? (text by Susan Otto), 2 sopranos, piano, 1962 (WillMayer Music)

Always, Always Forever Again (text by Eugene O'Neill), 2 sopranos, piano, 1963 (also version for soprano, flute, piano, 1963) (WillMayer Music)

No one knows (text by Susan Otto), soprano/mezzo-soprano/tenor, piano, 1964 (WillMayer Music)

Khartoum (text by the composer), soprano/mezzo-soprano, piccolo, violin, cello, piano, 1968 (also version for mezzo-soprano/tenor/baritone, piano, 1969) (WillMayer Music)

Eight Miniatures (texts by Elizabeth Aleinikoff, Dorothy Parker, Alfred Noyes, the composer), soprano, flute, trumpet, violin, cello, piano, percussion, 1968

Two News Items (text by the composer), soprano, flute, trumpet, violin, cello, piano, percussion, 1968 (also version of one section, Distraught Soprano Undergoes Unfortunate Transformation, for soprano, piano, 2004 [WillMayer Music])

Five Miniatures (texts by Dorothy Parker, the composer), soprano, piano, 1969 (WillMayer Music)

Enter Ariel (song-cycle, texts by Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, Langston Hughes, Sara Teasdale), soprano, clarinet, piano, 1980

Kitchen duet, soprano, baritone, piano, 1980 (concert version of section of A Death in the Family)

Passage (song-cycle, texts by Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Elizabeth Aleinikoff, John Aubrey, the composer), mezzo-soprano, flute, harp, 1981 (one section may be performed separately: What Lips my Lips have Kissed)

Fern Hill (text by Dylan Thomas), soprano, flute, harp, 1981

Lover's Lament (text by the composer), tenor/baritone, piano, 1982 (WillMayer Music)

First Song (text by Galway Kinnell), tenor, clarinet, violin, piano, 1990 (WillMayer Music)

Good King Wenceslas (fantasy, text by A. A. Milne), female speaker/male speaker, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, piano, 1992 (also version for female speaker/male speaker, orchestra [WillMayer Music])

Distant Playing Fields (vocalise), tenor, flute, clarinet, French horn, cello, piano, 1995

Last Song, soprano/high mezzo-soprano, clarinet, violin, piano, 1996 (concert version of section of A Death in the Family) (WillMayer Music)

Zoom-bah (text by the composer), soprano, flute, harp, viola, 1997

Dream Variations (text by Langston Hughes), baritone, piano, 2007 (WillMayer Music)

The Negro Speaks of Rivers, soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, piano, 2007 (version of choral work) (WillMayer Music)

Advice (text by Langston Hughes), soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, piano, 2008 (WillMayer Music)


Pepper and Salt, 1957 (WillMayer Music)

Angles, 1958 (WillMayer Music)

Sonata, 1959 (one section may be performed separately: Fantasia) (WillMayer Music)

The Snow Queen, 2 pianos, 1963 (concert version of ballet) (WillMayer Music)

Octagon, 2 pianos, 1971 (version of work for piano, orchestra)

Toccata, 1972 (WillMayer Music)

A Most Important Train, piano/2 pianos, 1975

Abandoned Bells, 1982

Subway in the Sunlight and Other Memories, 1991

SONGS FOR MUSIC THEATRE, 1951–61 (selection):

Autumn Girl (text by the composer)

Chez Vous (text by Sheldon Harnick)

Deep in the Hidden Heart (text by Elizabeth Aleinikoff)

Here in New York (text by Harold Littledale)

How About It? (text by the composer)

I Need Your Magic (text by Emily Jay)

I'm Nobody Now (text by Elaine Sherwood)

It's a Perfect Day (text by Emily Jay)

Let's Have a Party (text by Emily Jay)

Look at Me (text by Harold Littledale)

Mary Ann (text by Elaine Sherwood)

What Did I Do? (text by Harold Littledale)