John Harris Harbison, composer, conductor and teacher he is among the most ‘prolific' American composers, his works embrace elements of jazz as well as having a Baroque style. He is best known for his operas and choral works, but mainly for having won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1987 for ‘The Flight into Egypt' and being nominated for a 2006 Grammy Award for his ‘Mottetti di Montale'.
He was born into a musical family, he was a child prodigy who could improvise playing the piano at the age of 4. At 16 years of age he won the prestigious BMI Student Composer Award. He studied violin, viola, piano, tuba, and voice all while attending High School and went on to study music at Harvard University. While there he sang with the Harvard Glee Club, the Bach Society Orchestra, chamber and jazz music groups and later at Princeton.
Composer and teacher Roger Sessions mentor him at Harvard and became one of his most influential influences as did Walter Piston Jr., also a notable composer of classical music theorist at Harvard University. Some of his other teachers include Boris Blacher at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik and Earl Kim at Princeton also influenced him.
He has worked as a professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, since 1969. He is often called, ‘the great master of ambiguity' but self describes himself as a composer of operas. He was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to do ‘The Great Gatsby' to celebrate Maestro James Levine's 25th anniversary. This opera premiered on December 20, 1999, conducted by Levine and starring Jerry Hadley.
He has received many honors and awards, in 1998 he was named winner of the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities, a prize established Senator John Heinz wife, for contributions to the Arts and Humanities, the Environment, the Human Condition, Public Policy and Technology, and the Economy and Employment. In 1980 he received the Kennedy Center Friedheim First Prize, for his Piano Concerto and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989.
He is married to violinist Rose Mary Pederson, they have separate careers but in many regards ‘conjoined' careers. He writes many of his violin compositions for her and together they run the Token Creek Music Festival on their family farm in Wisconsin.