Stephen Paulus, best known for his 1982 opera The Postman Always Rings Twice, died Sunday, Oct. 19 at an assisted living facility in Minnesota following complications from a stroke. He was 65.
A remarkably prolific composer, Paulus wrote more than 450 works, including 60 orchestral scores, 10 operas and 150 choral pieces. He served as a composer-in-residence at Minnesota Orchestra and later held a similar post at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Atlanta’s renowned conductor, the legendary choral director Robert Shaw, appreciated Paulus singular gift for setting words to music. His Pilgrims’ Hymn was sung at the funeral of President Ronald Reagan.
Paulus’ music has been the focus of considerable recent attention in Nashville. In fact, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra released its all-Paulus CD on the Naxos label just last week. The disc features the world-premiere recordings of the Grand Concerto for and Organ and Orchestra (performed during the American Guild of Organists Convention in Nashville) and the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra. The recording also includes “Veil of Tears,” a short piece derived from the composer’s extended Holocaust oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn.
Born in Summit, N.J. in 1949, Paulus moved to Minnesota when he was two and remained there for the rest of his life. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he studied composition with Paul Fetler. Paulus received his Ph.D from Minnesota in 1978.
Unlike many other composers of his generation, Paulus eschewed the world of academia, preferring to work instead as a freelance composer. That choice probably explains why Paulus rarely, if ever, composed what the Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout calls “faculty lounge music” – complex, academic music that Ph.D’s write to impress other Ph.D’s. Paulus’ music was unapologetically lyrical in part because it had to be. He was writing for the public.
I first met Paulus about a dozen years ago, when he was serving as composer-in-residence at the Annapolis Symphony. Paulus had already composed for such ensembles as the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra, so I was surprised at the degree of energy and enthusiasm he brought to minor-league Annapolis. I was surprised because I didn’t know him yet.
For Paulus, composing was an art form that required constant exploration and struggle. His son, Greg, also a composer, once admitted that he sometimes felt inadequate to the lofty task of creating original music. Paulus understood those feelings. “I feel that way at least once a day,” he said.