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John Corigliano
(1938-    )

When John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles premiered at the Metropolitan opera in 1991, audiences and critics alike were delighted with the final installment of the Beaumarchais Figaro trilogy.  Andrew Porter of The Times wrote, “A triumph with the public, a success with the New York press, and a sell-out at the box office...It is heartening to find a new opera greeted with a standing ovation.”  But it is not just this “triumph” that has made Corigliano one of the most celebrated composers of new music.  Equally at home with both live concert works and film music, the composer has received one award after the other for his pieces, including an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and several Grammys.


John Corigliano was born on Feburary 16, 1938, in New York, and was raised in Brooklyn.  He inherited his musical talent from his father, violinist John Corigliano, Sr., who served as the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for over twenty years (1943-1966); his mother was also a talented pianist.  

As a teenager, the young composer was self-taught, learning about orchestration simply by studying scores as he listened to recordings.  He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in music at Columbia University in 1959, as a student of composer and opera conductor Otto Luening.  Corigliano then continued his composition studies at the Manhattan School of Music with Vittorio Giannini (also an accomplished violinist), and Paul Creston.  

Studying with his instructors, Corigliano encountered diverse stylistic influences—Luening worked with both tonal and atonal approaches, and was a pioneer of electronic music; Giannini and Creston both eschewed serialism and atonality in favor of Romanticism.  All three are best known for their large-scale compositions, opera and symphonic genres in particular.  Using these forms, Corigliano has also arguably made his greatest impact as a composer.

Early Career

In the 1960s, Corigliano spent some time working in radio and television, including a stint as a music programmer at the New York Times radio station WQXR, and as an assistant director (along with composer Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers) at Leonard Bernstein’s CBS series Young People’s Concerts.

Corigliano attracted attention as a composer in 1964, when he won the chamber music prize at the Spoleto Festival for his Sonata for Violin and Piano.  He was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1968.  His compositions during the 1960s included his orchestral Elegy (1965), Piano Concerto (1968), the song sets Petits Fours (1959) and The Cloisters (1965), and the beginnings of his choral symphony A Dylan Thomas Trilogy (1960-1976). 

By the 1970s, Corigliano was looking for stable work, and a chance encounter at a beauty parlor in 1972 between the composer’s mother and the mother of Lehman College’s music department chair led improbably to a lifelong position at the Bronx institution.  He also taught at the Manhattan School of Music in the 1970s and the 1980s, and from 1992 onward, has been on the composition faculty at the Juilliard School.

New Avenues; Awards

Corigliano’s notable compositions in the 1970s included his Oboe Concerto (1975) and Clarinet Concerto (1977), the latter of which was premiered by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.  He also began to consider new genres, in particular film composition. 

Corigliano has been selective about his cinematic projects, and three of his four scores have received high honors.  He waited six years between his first effort, A Williamsburg Sampler (1974) and his next, a more successful score.  This work, for Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), was nominated for a 1981 Academy Award.  His score for Revolution earned a 1985 Anthony Asquith Award in the U.K., and his work on The Red Violin won an Academy Award in 2000, as well as a Canadian Genie Award and a German Critics’ Award.  The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra, derived from this score, has had great success since its 1997 orchestral debut (prior to the movie’s release).

The early 1990s brought Corigliano new acclaim, for his Symphony No. 1 (1989, premiered 1990) and the choral work Of Rage and Remembrance, both of which were written to memorialize friends and other victims of AIDS.  A recording of the symphony won Grammy Awards in 1991 for Best New Composition and Best Orchestral Performance. 

The same year, his opera The Ghosts of Versailles premiered; it was a collaboration with librettist William M. Hoffman, who had previously supplied the text for Corigliano’s vocal set The Cloisters. The Ghosts of Versailles was the first new commission from the Metropolitan Opera in a quarter of a century.  The work was requested for the one hundredth anniversary of the company, and its success led the way to a decade of further operatic commissions showcasing new American composers at major U.S. houses. The opera’s triumph was followed by a second Grammy in 1996, for the String Quartet (1995), commissioned by the Lincoln Center for performance by the Cleveland Quartet.

Recent works have included the Symphony No. 2, which won Corigliano a Pulitzer in 2001, the 2003 song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan, the 2004 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (based, like the 1997 Chaconne, on The Red Violin), the 2004 wind symphony Circus Maximus, and the 2005 Piano Concerto.


Adamo, Mark. “John (Paul) Corigliano.” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (4 May    2006),  <>

Aronson, Karen. 2000. “A Lehman Music Teacher Comes Home With an Oscar.” The New York Times. 29 March 2000. Reprinted at CUNY Web site. <> (4 May    2006).

“C250 Celebrates Columbians Ahead of Their Time: John Corigliano.” 2004. Columbia University Web site.
<> (4 May 2006).

“John Corigliano.” 2005. G. Schirmer Inc. Web site.    <> (4 May 2006)