Brandeis University opened its doors on a brisk fall morning in October 1948 to a freshman class of 107 students. The students thought of themselves as “pioneers,” crossing on wooden planks over mud pits on the walk to classes, navigating constant construction and renovations in the first years. Starting out as a liberal arts college with a few science courses, the founders had big dreams – among them, a music program.
In 1949, the Brandeis Department of Music was formed. Serge Koussevitzky, one of the leading maestros of the time, accepted a position as “Consultant in Music” to the university, working with the administration to develop a curriculum, program concerts, select personnel, and envision the future of the program. Renowned pianist and musicologist Erwin Bodky was appointed as the program’s first professor, and taught the program's first classes in music history.
Just two months into its first year, the program received significant contributions from Adolph Ullman, the Chairman of the Organizing Committee of The Friends of Music of Brandeis University, and J.A. Slosberg, a prominent shoe manufacturer. These donations helped launch the program into decades of success.
In 1950, composer Irving Fine was appointed to the faculty. In addition to teaching and expanding opportunities within the department, Fine was an integral part of the creation of the university’s School of Creative Arts, of which he served as chair. Fine’s connections brought prominent musicians, scholars, and composers as visiting lecturers, including Aaron Copland, who co-taught a class with Fine titled, “The Anatomy of Twentieth Century Music.”
When Koussevitzky passed away in 1951, one of his best-known protégés, composer Leonard Bernstein, joined the faculty at Brandeis along with neo-classical composer Harold Shapero. In the spring of 1952, Brandeis hosted its first annual Festival of Creative Arts, which was later renamed in Bernstein’s honor. At the festival, Bernstein premiered his one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, the new French music form “Musique Concrete” was performed in the United States for the first time with Pierre Schaeffer’s “Symphonie pour un homme seul,” and Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation of The Threepenny Opera received its world premiere.
In 1953, Brandeis began offering its first advanced degrees in just four disciplines: one of them being music composition, spearheaded by Irving Fine. Composer and critic Arthur Berger joined the faculty in the same year, offering courses on musical criticism, analysis, and aesthetics. Soon after, the department began offering advanced degrees in music history as well as composition. It also became known as the unofficial headquarters of the “Boston School” of composers.
For nearly a decade, the music program at Brandeis did not have a central location to call home. This changed in 1957 when the Slosberg Music Center opened its doors. Named for J.A. and Bessie Slosberg and designed by Max Abramovitz, the building was inaugurated with chamber music concerts performed by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the day of its dedication. Initially, all of the Brandeis creative arts programs resided under its roof, and it is still home to the music department today.
In 1961, Gustav Ciamaga established the Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio (BEAMS). Since its inception, the studio has been directed by groundbreaking composers Alvin Lucier, Harold Shapero and, currently, Eric Chasalow. What separates BEAMS from many other studios in the country is the emphasis on using the studio as a tool to create music. This emphasis on music, rather than developing new technology, has been an integral part of the composition program’s formula for success.
Shortly after the formation of BEAMS, music department stalwart Irving Fine passed away suddenly at the age of 47 on August 23, 1962. A graduate student fellowship, concert series and professorship were created in his memory, with Arthur Berger serving as the first Irving G. Fine Professor of Music, followed by acclaimed composers Martin Boykan and Eric Chasalow. Fine’s legacy also encompassed his devoted students, including Richard Wernick, and future faculty members such as Yehudi Wyner; both Pulitzer Prize winning composers.
In 1980, violinists Wilma Smith and Judith Eissenberg, violist Mary Ruth Ray, and cellist Rhonda Rider auditioned before Robert Koff, professor of violin at Brandeis and a founding member of the Juilliard Quartet. The four women became the Lydian String Quartet, one of the first major string quartets in Boston. Still in residence at Brandeis today, the Lydians’ interpretive mastery of standard and contemporary repertoire has resulted in international prizes and acclaim, 29 commercial recordings, and concerts throughout the United States and abroad.
In 2004, quartet member Judith Eissenberg developed MusicUnitesUS, a campus-wide global music program that is housed in the Department of Music and aims to further the understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures through music. The program, which consists of a weeklong artist residency, public concert and collaboration with the Waltham Public Schools each semester, has highlighted musical traditions from six continents, featuring leading artists from Azerbaijan, Ghana, India, Korea, Peru and Syria, amongst others. In 2022, “Global Soundscapes,” a course created by Eissenberg and now taught by faculty ethnomusicologist Bradford Garvey, became a core requirement of the undergraduate music program.
In 2018, after 35 years at Wellesley College and a search that included multiple universities, the celebrated Composers Conference chose Brandeis to be its new home. At the time, artistic director and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Mario Davidovsky regarded Brandeis as, “one of the most important centers for music in the United States.” The two-week conference, now under the direction of composer Kurt Rohde, has become a highlight of summers at the Slosberg Music Center, while furthering the department’s legacy as a hub of contemporary composition.
Inspired by the vision of its founders, the Brandeis Department of Music continues to offer students the opportunity to experience music as both a form of scholarship and a process of creation and performance. Its distinguished faculty includes world-renowned composers, award-winning authors and scholars, instrumentalists, vocalists and conductors. It offers broad-based undergraduate majors and minors that combine the study of history, theory, composition and performance and its nationally acclaimed graduate programs are fostering the next great composers, theorists and historians.