Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington

An Oral History of American Music

Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve

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The first decades of the twentieth century were a fertile and fascinating period in American musical history. This book and the two CDs that accompany it present an exceptional collection of interviews with and about the most significant musical figures of the era. Tapping the unparalleled materials contained in the Oral History American Music archive at Yale University, Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington is a unique account of what it was like for musicians and composers to live and work in those years. It is also the story of the making of the archive, as told by Vivian Perlis, who personally conducted many of the interviews.

Music aficionados can now hear Eubie Blake describe the birth of ragtime or listen to a firsthand account of how Ira Gershwin came to write those famous lines in “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” In-depth interviews with such figures as Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, and Duke Ellington are included in the book, which also features chapter introductions and fascinating sidebars, illustrations, and anecdotes throughout. Two CDs complete the set, enabling today’s listener to enjoy the remarkablen experience of hearing the actual voices and the music of American composers of the early twentieth century.

Vivian Perlis is founding director and Libby van Cleve is associate director of Oral History American Music at the Yale School of Music and Library.

For interviews, excerpts, and more information on this book, visit the Oral History, American Music website.

Listen to a podcast of Aaron Copland as interviewed by Vivian Perlis.

Listen to a podcast of Charles Ives, interviews by Vivian Perlis.

A selection of Readers' Subscription 

Includes 2 CDs

“In this book Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve have assembled an amazing range of composers that reflects the diversity of American music. This publication offers lively interviews with giants of American music giving the reader an inside look at ragtime, ‘new’music and early jazz. The actual sound of the composers’ voices on CD is a unique element that gives us a glimpse into the era and the musical personalities who created it.”—Dave Brubeck, composer




“Through this wonderful series we can truly get to know the great artists who created the music that expresses who we are as a people better than almost anything I can think of. This is an indispensable treasure trove of American history and culture, and a unique celebration of the American spirit.”—Ken Burns, filmmaker

"There has never been a project to rival this accomplishment. Devoting decades of work to documenting the sounds of some of our greatest creators, these two gifted women have provided a rare insight into the thoughts and voices of America's musical geniuses. This is a work that is a must-have for not only the seasoned listener, but anyone interested in our oral history."—Leonard Slatkin, Conductor

"Not only is Vivian Perlis the world’s leading authority on American music, she is a lucid, thorough, and charming writer on the subject. Her invaluable Oral Histories are one-of-a-kind, as this book now proves."—Ned Rorem, Composer and Writer

"It’s fascinating reading; can’t put it down."—Kyle Gann’s web log on Arts

“An enthralling new book. . . . In a sense the book is a glorious scrapbook, full of pictures, reproductions of letters, manuscripts and other documents, and edited transcripts of interviews with the composers and their families, friends and associates. But it is also a symphony of voices, and one of the best things is that the CDs that come with it allow the reader to hear the voices and unedited words of all these people, to feel the force of their personalities.”—Richard Dyer, Chicago Tribune

"I strongly recommend this book as an important reference for honest appraisal of the reverence in which Duke Ellington was held."—William Hasson, Ellingtonia

"Perlis and Van Cleve are not only masterly elicitors of frank commentary but also deeply knowledgeable historians of America music history; their own perspectives and commentary provide a balance to the purely anecdotal reflections of their subjects. The presentation of the material, with numerous photos and sidebars, is very reader-friendly. While the transcriptions themselves make fascinating reading, the two CDs containing excerpts of the interviews provide the immediacy of the live voice. All students of American music and of contemporary American cultural history will find this volume indispensable."—Library Journal (starred review)

Composers’ Voices creates an erudite summary of the work and artists that came to define the most influential period in American music (1900-1930). Perlis and Van Cleve are exhaustive in their coverage of the period, and the authors analyze myriad topics.”—The Electric Review

"This is the raw material of history. . . . Perlis and Van Cleve . . . provide a look at the past century’s American music that shows just how dynamic that era was."—Time Out Chicago

"The book and CDs offer fascinating glimpses of composers and their work. . . . Richly illustrated, Composers evokes nostalgia for a period in American life and music when composers, with Copland, sought 'a confirmation of life' and enlargement of 'the listener's sphere of reference.'"—Andrew L. Pincus, Berkshire Eagle


“Here are generous, lively, surprising, and often moving interviews with most of the giants of American music… [An] essential purchase, unhesitatingly recommended.” - John Robert Brown, Classical Music

"A great delight. . . . A volume that will reward any American musician, in giving a historical sense of the field, and of the roots of our art music. It will also be fascinating for anyone interested in American art and culture of the 20th century. It stands as that rarity, both a "gift book" and a scholarly tome. You can tell how I feel. Buy it."—Robert Carl, Fanfare


"A superb contribution."—Association of Recorded Sound Collections

"Anyone who takes American E-Musik seriously will find this book indispensable. I enthusiastically recommend it to one and all, with no reservation whatever."—Paul Moor,

"Rarely have five hundred pages of musicological text contained such richness combined with such liveliness of presentation. So candid are these interviews, so electric in rhythm, preserving the 'jumpiness' of live speech, that it is hard to put the book down. . . . This is an expertly prepared volume. . . . The book contains much wisdom."—Edward Green, Journal of the Society for American Music

"Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington marks the first installment in a monumental summation of a life's work. Vivian Perlis literally pioneered the use of oral history in documenting American composers, and with Libby Van Cleve presents them in this publication. The revelations—abundant, startling, moving—are shared here."—Carol J. Oja, Harvard University

Winner of a 2006 ASCAP Deems Taylor Special Recognition Award.

Chosen as a title in the 2006 AAUP University Press Books for Public and Secondary School Libraries

Winner of the 2006 Independent Publisher Book Award in the Performing Arts Category selected by Independent Publisher
ISBN: 9780300106732
Publication Date: October 20, 2005
512 pages, 7 x 10
109 b/w illus.