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(1885 - 1966)

Joseph Deems Taylor (1885–1966), born and raised in New York City, had only a few months of piano studies as his musical education by the time he entered New York University. When he graduated in 1906 he knew he had two significant talents: composing and writing. Indeed, the music he composed for three NYU varsity shows had caught the attention of Broadway producer William Dillingham who, in 1910, brought Taylor’s The Echo (with libretto by classmate William LeBaron) onto the Great White Way for a short run. Victor Herbert, who had come to one of the NYU shows, saw raw talent in Taylor, but told him he needed much more musical training. So Taylor scraped up enough money for a half-year of music theory, but not enough to study orchestration. That he taught himself using the music scores of great composers as his textbooks.

After college he dropped “Joseph” and became a more distinct “Deems Taylor” and worked for publishers and newspapers to pay his bills as he composed cantatas (The Highwayman was widely performed), arranged choral works for pay, and composed a highly successful Through the Looking Glass suite, based on episodes from the Lewis Carroll novel. The suite would become his most famous composition, performed by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra (1924) as well as Willem Mengelberg and the New York Philharmonic (1925). Blessed with an intrinsic wit, he became a member of the Algonquin Round Table where he made theatrical connections that brought commissions for incidental music for major drama productions such as Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1921) and Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom (1923), later the basis of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

Deems Taylor
Deems Taylor with his daughter at home in Stamford, Connecticut, during the composition of Peter Ibbetson, 1930
Photo courtesy of the Deems Taylor Estate

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