His Life


William Jay Sydeman             5/8/1928 – 5/27/2021

William Jay Sydeman, American composer, 93, died in his sleep on May 27, 2021. Jay lived at The Woods, a private community near Mendocino, California. He taught composition at the Mannes School of Music conservatory in New York from 1960 to 1970. The New York Times once wrote, “The season has begun: there is a premier by William Sydeman…” and called him the most played composer of his generation. Sydeman was selected by Erich Leinsdorf to write “In Memoriam John F. Kennedy”, performed by the Boston Symphony in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. He was awarded the Boston Symphony’s Award of Merit and scholarships to Tanglewood.

Sydeman wrote contemporary music, pushing the envelope of the avant garde. He was not a devotee of any single school of music but used the tonal and harmonic resources opened up by Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky, and one of his teachers, Roger Sessions, with freedom and individuality. As one of the composers selected for a commission for the dedication of Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, his piece, Malediction, a “black comedy” spoof on the excommunication curse from “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” a satiric 18th century comic novel by Laurence Sterne, enjoying a revival at the time, nearly caused a riot. Sydeman said, “I know how Stravinsky felt at the premiere of “The Rite of Spring.”

In 1981 Sydeman taught at Steiner College in Fair Oaks, California, where he wrote much of his choral music. There he set to music Rudolf Steiner’s Calendars of the Soul. Sydeman lived in Nevada City, California, from 1988 to 2007, and there he helped organize a composers group, the Nevada County Composers Cooperative. They started a mentoring program for young composers, which is still active today.

In Mendocino Jay played piano for a weekly lunch program at the Mendocino Presbyterian Church and gave performances and talks at the Mendocino Art Center.  He played with a jazz group and played classical music with friends at the Woods. He had a radio program on local station KZYX called “The Mind of the Composer” until he retired in 2018.

Jay is published by Edition Peters, E. C. Schirmer, Associated Music, Subito Music and others. Many of his works are available on International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). Jay always believed the best memorial to him would be to listen to his music.

Jay is survived by his daughters, Ann Sydeman (Henry Moreton), Michelle Sydeman, son William Sydeman (Catherine Madonia), granddaughters, Emily and Julia Moreton and Claire and Marie Sydeman, and close friend and caregiver, Jeanne Duncan.

(Courtesy of Jeanne Duncan)

Life Chronology

Early Life

1928 Jay William Sydeman born in New York City, USA, May 8 to Terese Nathan and Joseph Sydeman. Had two older siblings, Joan and Sumner.

1932 or 33 Got rheumatic (Scarlett) fever. Father legally changed his name to William Jay Sydeman to deceive the Angel of Death; an old Jewish superstition.

1935 Father died at age 43, heart attack after playing tennis ; family moved from suburbs to NYC to live with maternal grandparents in apartments above Beresford Hotel overlooking Central Park.

1940 Started piano lessons because hernia operation prevented going to summer camp with brother, Sumner. Learned “Donkey Serenade”; Taught to add chords to melody; no classical instruction

1942-44  Attended Blair Academy high school in Blairstown, New Jersey

1944  Mother arranged interview with social friend, Richard Rodgers [Ann: as in Richard Rodgers of Rodger and Hammerstein]; played improv piano for him; Rodgers discouraged him re difficulties of a music career, “Music is a hard business.”

1944-45  Duke University, wrote college musical “Calcutta” with cousin. Did little schoolwork and was encouraged to attend college elsewhere.

1945 Attended a music school Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music, Indianapolis, on advice of Duke U. to go to music school. Was attracted to it by their neon sign (knew nothing about conservatories), 

1946-1950  Auditioned by playing piano for Mannes (sr.), admitted provisionally to study music theory at Mannes School of Music in NY. Had no knowledge of the classical repertory; didn’t know how to read music. Stopped playing jazz piano and began to learn classical, bought and studied scores, attended concerts daily, favored new music.

1949 At Mannes, arranged to study composition with Roger Sessions at Princeton, rather than Bohuslav Martinu, Mannes teacher of composition at the time.

1950 Married Hope, piano student at Mannes; fell in love hearing her play Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz; got married because of Korean War draft. He didn't want someone else to snatch her up.

1950-53 Drafted to Korean War; sent to Germany, joined by Hope who studied piano there. Stationed in Garmisch Partenkirchen, Bavaria, a ski resort where they sent soldiers to recover. Jay was a clerk but wasn't much good at it so his secretary did all his work.  With army buddy Burt Bacharach, played piano at nightclub almost nightly, a place where soldiers met. Lived off-base in a room in a psychiatrist's house. The previous tenant was actor Peter Lorre.

1955 Graduated from Mannes College of Music with a BS in Music, major in Composition, in the first graduating class, with Hope and three others

1956-57  Scholarships to Tanglewood, met two young composers (Robert Lombardo  and Tom Putshe), liked their work, and learned both studied with Arnold Franchetti at Hartt School of Music, Hartford, Connecticut.

1958 Enrolled in graduate school at Hartt College to study with Arnold Franchetti, son of Baron Alberto Franchetti a well- known composer. Arnold Franchetti had studied with his father and also with composer Richard Strauss.

1957 First child, William Jay Sydeman, is born in Hartford, Connecticut

1958 Received Masters of Music degree  from Hartt College

1959 First daughter is born, Elizabeth Dorsey (aka Michelle), in Glastonbury, CT

1960s Professional Career

~1960 Bought a home, 234 Villard Ave, in Hastings-on-the-Hudson; wrote music in a room over the garage. Began to establish career as New York composer, primarily chamber music.
[Bill: there was a study room over the garage which was his “studio” , where he went to write music. We were NOT allowed in his studio.  We had the cat Pumpkin there, which was a huge family deal.]

1960-70 Taught composition at Mannes

1960s Played music weekly with friend Judy Seixas (flute) and a large group of amateur musicians, played Brandenberg Concerti. Judy and Frank Seixas were good friends

1960 Premier of Concerto di Camera No. 1 by Music in Our Time (Max Pollikoff), first great NY Times review.

1963 Second daughter is born, Ann Woodward, in NYC. 
[Bill: There was a small  area at the foot of the stairs that eventually was a nursery for Ann.]

1963  Boston Symphony premier of Study No. 2 for Orchestra (11/22/63)

1964 Boston Symphony Merit Award for “a significant contribution to the orchestral repertoire”

1966  Boston Symphony premier of In Memoriam John F. Kennedy, Erich Leinsdorf, conductor, E. G. Marshall, Narrator. (11/4/66)

1967 Study No. 3 for Orchestra for Boston Symphony Orchestra

1969 Malediction premiered for the opening of Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center (9/11/69). The audience hated it.
[Ann: Jay described the Malediction as a big F-you to the NY music scene. But he also thought the curse was very funny and has played it for me or read it to me many times. He was so embarrassed by the negative audience reaction, he felt like he had to leave NY. ]

1969 Older brother Sumner died, age 43 , same as their father, of a heart attack, same as their father. (September 1969)
[Bill: His father's and brother's deaths were highly significant events. They led to a lot of Jay's health-kick habits including yoga…he feared dying of a heart attack for long time.]

1969  Took family to live on the Canary Islands to mend relationship with Hope. Instead marriage fell apart; family returned after two months ; divorced.

[Bill: Excuse my French, but this was a compete f*&*ing disaster.  It was a horrible time and horrible trip, aside from eating burgers at an open air restaurant near our apartment. They did nothing but fight.]

[Ann: Now that I see his brother's death, divorce from his wife, and the malediction all coincided, I see why that was a turning point in his life.]

1970 Lived in an apartment in Yonkers, NY. Started producing his own music using a synthesizer. Visited with kids on Sundays. Terrible back pain caused him to start a yoga practice. 

1970s - 1980s Spiritual Awakening

Took a hiatus from composing for the next five years decade.

1971 Hope and family moved to Los Angeles for Hope to attend graduate school. Followed them 6-8 months later. Worked at CEDU, a youth drug rehab center in the San Bernardino Mountains because a friend in NY knew someone there.

1971-72 CEDU’s leader’s wife introduced teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (lecture in LA); Went to Emerson College in England to study Steiner.

1973-74  Returned to LA area, lived in beach apartment with Zade; met Chamba who became a life-long friend

1974-75  Moved to Dungeness Washington (near Sequim) and bought a house with friends from CEDU, Ira and Sue Stollak.  (Other tenants [owners?] Allen and Susan, Maharaji followers, installed an incredible garden in the back yard, which inspired Ann’s years later.  [Bill: House in Dungeness needed a lot of work.  Dad bought the house.  Ira and Michael (Allen?) did the remodel.  I went there in summer 1975 after graduating from high school and helped with banging nails…  It was a really neat house. We bought a Volvo station wagon together (I put in $200, he put in $300). ]

Chamba suggested living on land in Hawaii bought from Sumner; Decided to join Chamba in Hawaii and find the land on the big island.
[Bill] Land from Sumner was on Hilo side.  Maybe they lived there for a while but it was nothing but lava rock. 

1975-1980 Lived on big island of Hawaii, first in a car and on the beach with Chamba, then built a house on land in coffee region of Kona mountains.  It was completely overgrown with guava and other invasive trees.  Also lived on land Chamba bought near Kealekekua, in “shacks”.  Chamba wanted to farm --  Jay was financier. 
[Bill] I lived there in a tent for 6+ months from winter-spring 1976. Went there for Christmas '75 and didn’t go back for college.  That was a fun time.  We ate a lot of avocados, and cleared land.
[Bill: There were multiple land/house purchase. One very normal house/land was purchased in Milolii.  I think this is where he met Jeanie’s parents.  He also had a piece of land in the o’hia forest in southern Kona above Milolii where he built a “house”… if you could call it that.  It was cool though.]

Met violinist Jeannie Doe, whose parents were neighbors. Resumed composing -- 23 duos for violins for them to play together. "I stopped for five years, met a violinist in Hawaii and started writing again with a new lyrical impulse.” Jeannie left him after a hurtful comment and moved to the buddhist temple. Jay followed her there and helped with its restoration, clearing land with a scythe. The temple, Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling, is the only branch of Tibetan Nechung in the west and remains active today. 
 [Ann: Jeannie parent's had said that if Jay met her, he would fall in love with her, which he did.] 

1981-84  Invited to teach music at Steiner College in Fair Oaks. California. Wrote choral music for students, set Steiner’s 52 weekly Calendar of the Soul meditations to music. Wrote St. John’s Gospel, Four Psalms,  Foundation Stone. Wrote Study No. 4 for Orchestra for Carter Nice director of Sacramento Symphony.

Met Christina Chalmers, also a significant life-long friend. Godfather to her daughter Sierra.

1984  Moved to Derby St in Berkeley and also lived off Golf Links Rd in Oakland
[Bill: Loved Ethiopian food from the Blue Nile and particularly Yi Doro Tibs.  We visited him a lot there, as I recall.]

198? Lived in Oakland Hills with Karyn and her son. Had tennis court cantilevered over the edge of the hill and played with kids Ann and Bill.

Settling Down

1984-2006  Moved to Nevada City; purchased land and built an odd collection of houses and cabins, some with the help of Chamba, who lived nearby. Had visions of a cooperative living situation, which never came to fruition. Significant relationships with Valerie and Anya. Dog Kasha.

Organized composers group, conducted youth chorus, started young composers group with other composers, wrote music for annual Bach Festival in Sacramento, participated In “Wet Ink”, new compositions for annual Music in the Mountains festival. Wrote choral piece, Yuba River. PBS commission to write music for Halley’s Comet Retrospective planned for 1986 when the comet was to make its once in 86 years appearance. 

2006-   Moved to Mendocino at Jeannie Doe’s invitation, needing better air quality. Ozone inversion caused him breathing problems in Nevada City. Christina Chalmers was also living there or joined them soon after.  Lived briefly in a trailer on Jeannie's Mendocino property. Eventually bought a house in The Woods. Eventually, Jeannie Doe followed him to The Woods and resided nearby.

Hosted a radio program, The Mind of the Composer, on KZYX, a local station with PBS programming. Began writing, editing and recording music with computer orchestra for radio program. Met Rick Shinozaki, violinist with the Del Sol Quartet, who became publisher and editor of music not with other publishers. Played music for the free luncheons at the Presbyterian Church and accompanied the Sunday services on occasion. Performed weekly jazz session with  friends at The Woods. 

2010 Met writer, Jeanne Duncan, who began interviews for book, Taming the Muse, the Art, Craft, and Magic of a Master Composer and was his devoted friend and caregiver for the remainder of his life.

2018 Celebrated 90th birthday with a house concert at Ann's Woodside home. MC'ed by Jay; Music performed by Rick Shinozaki.

Rick started the process of uploading all Jay's unpublished sheet music to IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project) a public domain site for music.
[Ann: This delighted Jay and solved his heartache of not having his music available to the world.]

Composed over 2000 pieces; many of which are not yet in the public domain.

2021 Died peacefully in his bed at The Woods, Mendocino. (May 27)

(Adapted from a chronology written by Jeanne Duncan, with input from Bill Sydeman, Ann Sydeman, and Hope Millholland)

Musical Career Highlights

Major Awards
  • National Institute of Arts and Letters
  • Boston Symphony Merit Award 1964
  • Koussevitsky Foundation (Library of Congress)
  • Sigma Alpha Iota American Music Series
  • Winner - KPFK Competition

Major Commissions
  • Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra, In Memorium John F. Kennedy, premiered Nov 4, 1966
  • Tanglewood Music Center
  • Sacramento Symphony Orchestra
  • National Public Television, Music for Comet Halley
  • Contemporary Chamber Ensemble
  • Music in Our Time Series
  • Dartmouth Congregation of the Arts