John David Earnest: ECS Composer of the Month

“A joyful, demanding, arduous task…”

Words from John David Earnest on the work of a composer.

Describe life as a composer.

I write music because I’m compelled to do so: it’s a joyful, demanding, arduous task, and the spiritual satisfaction is often profound.

Describe your compositional style. What most inspires your music?

It’s difficult to describe one’s own compositional “style,” if there is one at all. The most I can say about it is that I love making a good melody, especially a lyrical one; I’m also drawn to propulsive rhythmic ideas, and dissonant chromatic harmony in a tonal context.

For the past 35 years, you’ve taught composition and orchestration privately as well as at the university level. In your work with students, what questions do you hear most often?

Student: I have this idea, but now I’m stuck–how do I go on from here?

I usually have a variety of answers to the question, depending on the student, but my most frequent answer is: Use what you’ve already got! You don’t need to keep generating more ideas. Just look for the potential in the original idea itself (intervallic and rhythmic motives, harmonic structures, patterning, and the like), and use those things to start building a structure for the piece. Think ahead about how the piece might take shape.

Do you have any words of advice for young or new composers looking to share their music with ensembles, conductors, or publishers?

Learn as much as you can about the players and the instruments you’re writing for. Make sure your score and parts are carefully edited for dynamics, articulations, phrasing, and so on. Anticipate the questions that performers ask by using meticulous notation.

Several works from you vocal catalog have been recently released by E. C. Schirmer. Do you implement different techniques and methods when composing for the voice, as opposed to what you do in composing for choirs or instruments?

Yes, most certainly. Setting text to music in solo vocal works is a skill unto itself, as is the setting of text in choral works: I always begin with the words first, reading them aloud, then vocally improvising them, often at the keyboard with supporting harmony.

What musical projects are you currently working on?

I’m writing a piece for flute/bass flute and piano for premiere by Leonard Garrison at the National Flute Association Convention in 2018. I’m also writing a string quartet, as well as making some solo vocal and choral arrangements of American folk songs and spirituals.

To find out more about John David Earnest, we recommend this interview by the Union-Bulletin of Walla Walla, WA.


New York City-based composer John David Earnest was educated at the University of Texas in Austin (BM in Composition, 1964; MM in Composition, 1967). He has written extensively for orchestra, chamber ensemble, chorus, solo voice, concert band, opera and film. His Second Symphony: The Hastening Light for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra, was commissioned and premiered by the Walla Walla Symphony, Yaacov Bergman, conductor, in February 2001. Mr. Earnest’s Chasing the Sun, a scherzo for orchestra has been widely played throughout the United States, and was recorded in Poland by the Warsaw National Philharmonic. Other orchestral works include Bountiful Voyager; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (commissioned and premiered by the Mid-Columbia Symphony, Robert Bode, conductor); Sun Songs and Nocturnes (commissioned for Chanticleer and the New Jersey Symphony, Hugh Wolff, conductor); and Southern Exposure (commissioned and premiered by the Mobile Symphony, Scott Speck, conductor).

Mr. Earnest’s chamber music includes the Sonata for Piano (commissioned and premiered by Lee D. Thompson); Trois Morceaux (trio for clarinet, violin and cello); and The Blue Estuaries (for soprano and seven instruments; premiered by soprano Laural Klein and the Zephyr Ensemble, Robert Bode, conductor). Major choral works are A Van Doren Triptych (commissioned by the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants, Craig Jessup, conductor); Only in the Dream (commissioned by the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, Gary Miller, conductor); Variations on Three American Folksongs (commissioned by the Whitman College Chorale, Robert Bode, conductor) and many more choral works, both large and small. Mr. Earnest has been an active theater composer with two one-act operas, Howard (written with librettist Tray Christopher) and A Desperate Waltz (written with librettist Mervyn Goldstein). He is currently working on a full-length opera for premiere in 2006.

For the past 25 years, Mr. Earnest has been teaching composition and orchestration privately in New York City. In 1999 he was appointed the Johnston Visiting Professor of Music at Whitman College, where he taught composition, as well as a seminar on American Music and the Arts in the 20th Century. He continues his association with Whitman College as Composer-in-Residence while also teaching composition for a limited time each semester. He has taught at Lehman College, City University of New York, and Rutgers University in New Jersey. Fellowships have been awarded Mr. Earnest by the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacDowell Colony.

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