Connecticut native Albert Hurwit came to composition late in life, after a successful medical career in radiology. Although not formally trained, he composed two notable compositions: 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, Hurwit is musically untrained and admits to not practicing as much as he should have. 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 seat into my spine 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. It never occurred to him more than 50 years later, one of those songs – which he wrote by ear – would grow into his own full-fledged symphony. A student at Harvard University, Hurwit planned to major in music. However, his dream was quickly dashed when his interview for the composition program revealed that despite his acute musical ear, he couldn’t actually read music. “I absolutely flunked the sight-reading test,” he recalls. He was advised to take piano lessons and re-apply in his sophomore year. So, instead, Hurwit decided to become a doctor – “medicine became my back-up plan.” After graduating from Tufts Medical School in 1957, followed by four years of post-graduate medical training, he returned to Hartford and established a long radiology practice.
After retiring from his practice in 1986, Hurwit followed his natural instincts and taught himself to compose. In 1997, then-Hartford Symphony music director Michael Lankester led the orchestra in a performance of Hurwit’s first work, “Adagio for Orchestra.” Afterward, Lankester (along with other professionals) encouraged the composer to expand the piece into a larger work. Hurwit proceeded to compose Symphony No. 1, “Remembrance,” and completed it with Lankester’s guidance.
Symphony No. 1, “Remembrance” is based on the composer’s Jewish family’s escape from Russian persecution to begin a new life in America in the early 1900s. Of the two years it took to complete the work, Hurwit notes, “I was driven by pure passion, with no consideration for musical rules or the practicalities of getting it performed…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 families.” Lankester subsequently recorded the work with the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra on MSR Classics.
Hurwit’s short choral work All There Still Bells is based after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells.” The composer extended Longfellow’s words into a universal entreaty for world peace, 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.
Hurwit’s Symphony No. 1 – as well as the stand-alone third movement “Remembrance” – have been performed by orchestras in Connecticut, Maryland, and Texas. In 2009, “Remembrance” was awarded the 2009 American Composers Composition Award.
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.”
For more information, visit the composer’s website.