Remembering Ron Nelson

The American composer Ron Nelson, who wrote numerous works for wind ensemble, as well as for orchestra and chorus, passed away on December 24, 2023. He was 94.

Leonard Slatkin once called Nelson a “quintessential American composer,” and praised his “ability to move between conservative and newer styles with ease,” adding, “The fact that he’s a little hard to categorize is what makes him interesting.”

Born in Joliet, Illinois, Nelson studied with Louis Mennini, Bernard Rogers, and Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music, and later with Tony Aubin at Paris’ Ecole Normale de Musique. Early in his career, as a result of the comparatively greater abundance of commission opportunities, Nelson gravitated towards band music. Later, he said that he approached band music with “an orchestral bias for transparency.”  Beginning in 1953, he served on the faculty of Brown University and carried the banner for tonality, while peers such as Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions at nearby Princeton espoused atonal serial techniques.

Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H)

In his unfinished collection, The Art of the Fugue, J.S. Bach inscribed his name, musically, in the form of a cryptogram, using the letters of the German alphabet (B-flat, A, C, and B natural). Ron Nelson drew upon the same motif in his 1993 piece for band, Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H). Additionally, in the nineteenth variation, there is a quote from Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor. The eight-measure passacaglia theme is stated 25 times as the solemn and majestic work progresses from darkness to light.

Savannah River Holiday

Composed in 1952, Savannah River Holiday is a jubilant orchestral overture, a kind of musical joyride. It was the first in a series of holiday-themed pieces that Nelson composed throughout his career. There are echoes of the lush, colorful orchestration of Howard Hanson. One shimmering passage may remind you of the final movement of Hanson’s “Romantic” Second Symphony. The dizzying final bars careen towards a conclusion with a jazzy sense of swing.

Rocky Point Holiday

Rocky Point Holiday was composed in 1966, during the composer’s summer vacation in Rocky Point, Rhode Island. It was written in response to a commission by the University of Minnesota Band. The ensemble performed the piece during a tour of Russia.