“Most composers have very long biographies. My musical biography is one paragraph.”
Hartford, Connecticut-native Albert Hurwit came to composition late in life, after a long, successful medical career in radiology. Although not formally trained, his two noted compositions include the award-winning Symphony No.1, “Remembrance” and his distinctive choral work Are There Still Bells.
With the exception of three years of childhood piano lessons which his parents insisted he take, Hurwit is musically untrained and admits to not practicing as much as he should have. “I was lazy, but I was blessed with a good ear, and I bluffed my way through.” But he always loved music and remembers when his father took him to the local concert hall. When the performance began, “I thought there was a spring sticking out of the seats behind me and actually turned to feel around for it. But it really was the thrill of the music.”
When he was 16, Hurwit was injured during a football game, and while recuperating, he began improvising songs on the piano; but he never thought that one of these songs – which he wrote by ear – would appear more that 50 years later in his symphony. After high school, he applied to Harvard University, and was accepted into the music composition program. However, during his in-person interview, it was discovered that although Hurwit could play well by ear, he couldn’t read music. “I absolutely flunked the sight-reading test,” Hurwit recalls. “I didn’t know the song and it had more that three sharps, so medicine became my back-up plan.” After graduating from Tufts Medical School in 1957, he returned to Hartford and established what would become a well-established radiology career.
In 1985, Hurwit retired from his practice; and following his natural instincts, Hurwit began to write an orchestral movement. In 1997, former Hartford Symphony music director Michael Lankester conducted the Adagio with the orchestra and subsequently encouraged Hurwit to expand the piece into a larger work. Lankester helped guide Hurwit in completing his Symphony No. 1, “Remembrance.” The symphony is based on the composer’s Jewish family’s journey of escaping 18th- and 19th-century persecution and beginning a new life in America. During the two years and two months it took to complete the work, Hurwit notes, “When I wrote it, it was pure passion, with no consideration for politics or economics…For centuries, the persecution of various ethnic groups has forced younger generations to separate from their elders and seek safety and freedom in foreign lands. It is the story of this symphony [and] the story of untold numbers of families.” Lankester subsequently recorded the work with the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra for MSR Classics, and the symphony – as well as the stand-alone third movement “Remembrance” – has received several orchestral performances in Connecticut, Maryland, and Texas. In 2009, “Remembrance” was awarded the 2009 American Composers Composition Award.
Hurwit’s choral work All There Still Bells is a short work that based after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Christmas Bells. The composer extended the lyrics into a universal entreaty for world piece, and includes a pivotal moment in which the chorus sings “Peace on Earth” in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and several contemporary languages spoken around the world.
In 2013, Hurwit was honored at Lincoln Center when the national broadcast of the PBS special “Lifecasters” presented the world premiere of his story in the documentary entitled “The Gambling Man.”