Donald Erb 1927-2008

Written by: Martin Anderson

Donald Erb (1927-2008) Although Donald Erb – who died in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on August 12th – had largely given up composition since a heart-attack in 1996, the previous decades had produced a voluminous output of music that established him as one of the mainstays of American modernism.

Erb was born in Youngstown, Ohio, on January 17th, 1927 and played trumpet in a jazz band as a schoolboy and after naval service in the Second World War. He took a first degree at Kent State University in 1950, a master’s at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1952 and a doctorate at Indiana University, Bloomington in 1963. In 1953 he spent some time in Paris, studying with Nadia Boulanger. His own career as a teacher had begun the year before, at the Cleveland Institute; he was awarded a Distinguished Professorship in 1987 and retired as Professor Emeritus in 1996.

Erb’s music – recorded on a wide range of American labels, New World, Summit and Albany among them – began to attract widespread attention in the 1960s. He was one of the first composers to experiment with mixed media: in 1967 the electronic pioneer Robert Moog played synthesizer in the première of Reconnaissance. Perhaps his most frequently performed score is The Seventh Trumpet, premièred in 1969, which includes parts for harmonicas, synthesizers and water-filled glasses and jugs. His jazz background left room for aleatoric elements, too, sometimes involving the audience. Near the end of his career, more explicitly American elements, not least hymn-tunes and chorales, worked their way into his music. Erb, an easygoing personality, accepted that it was moving towards the mainstream but expressed the hope that it maintained its irreverence.

  • This article was written for International Record Review and published in the November 2008 issue
  • It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
  • International Record Review

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