“ Interestingly, the work that tried to please the least was the most compelling. Hayes Biggs’ piece Ave Formosissima harkens back to the dance-mad, melismatic and slightly raucous music of the Middle Ages. But the score, with its zig-zagging lines and pungent dissonances, is genuinely contemporary.”—New York Times
“ A Consuming Fire, a short, zesty trio by Hayes Biggs, led off the evening. The piece is framed by some engagingly angular rhythmic writing, with a lyrical nougat at the center.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“ [The] most convincing and coherent performance [was] Hayes Biggs’ homage to his composer/pianist colleague Eric Moe, E.M. am Flügel, a short piece with romantic gestures and echoes of Berg and Stravinsky.”—Aufbau
“ The Mass for All Saints would be an exciting challenge for those choirs skilled in precise intonation and rhythmic agility. Biggs writes with knowledge of and respect for the expressive capabilities of the human voice.”—Choral Journal
“ Hayes Biggs’s wedding motet Tota Pulchra Es, here being sung for the first time, impressed by its quiet solemnity and neat working of its expressive opening motif: not empty fanfares but a reminder of the seriousness and privacy of love.”—New York Times
“ Mass for All Saints by composer Hayes Biggs releases shadows transformed into tendrils of light by the arabesque of the vocal line. Contrapuntal procedures are used to their utmost expressive effect. [It] is a work of a melodist of talent in the manner of Puccini, or better yet, Respighi.”—La Liberté
“ The Biggs song, Northeast Reservation Lines, is a real party piece... the sneakiness of the changes, the liveliness of the music and the verve of the performance worked handily... a potential recital hit in the vein of Bernstein’s I Hate Music cycle.”—The Village Voice
“ All the works tried a return to tonality typical of the decade; the most successful made the return oblique and ambiguous. Hayes Biggs’ O Sacrum Convivium took off from the motet of Tallis, yet it handsomely reconfigured early modes in a modernistic scheme of free tonality.”—New York Times
“ Hayes Biggs’ To Becalme His Fever... is a vivid evocation of anxiety, fits and repose. The language embraces pointillistic colors, romantic lines and prickly episodes when the demons hover. Biggs claims a forceful and subtle dramatic hand, along with a keen command of instrumental resources.”—The Plain Dealer
Welcome to the latest incarnation of hayesbiggs.com/. I hope that you will find it to be a useful introduction to and source of information about my activities as a composer. Here you will be able to find information about my works and upcoming performances, audio clips, and program notes, as well as random postings, sundry observations, and stray thoughts, mostly (but not necessarily exclusively) about music.
To begin, some background: my formative years were spent in the South, in a small town on the Mississippi River called Helena, Arkansas, not far from Memphis, Tennessee. My sister Helen still lives near and works in Memphis, which also is where my parents were raised. My family and I spent a significant amount of time there, it being the closest large city to Helena.
As far back as I can remember, there always was music in our home, and there certainly was musical ability in my family. Both of my parents enjoyed music in a variety of styles and genres, and both had a particular love for the standard classical repertory, including opera. My father, William Winstead Biggs, who was a physician, had little musical training, though he’d had a few trumpet lessons as a child and was possessed of a very good natural singing voice. He was a stalwart of the Helena Little Theatre, and played a leading part in its first operatic production, singing the role of Ben—which he learned by rote, with me helping at the piano—in Menotti’s The Telephone, presented as part of a double bill with Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley. His trumpet-playing heroes included “Bunny” Berigan and Harry James, his favorite symphony was Tchaikovsky’s Fifth (Dvořák’s From the New World was a close second), and he loved organ music, particularly the recordings of E. Power Biggs (no relation), whose radio broadcasts he’d listened to as a young man. He took me to see my first opera, Bizet’s Carmen, when I was eleven. My dad’s mother, whom I never knew—she and my paternal grandfather died in an automobile accident when my father was ten—sang and played the piano and guitar, and from what I’ve been told, did all of those things rather well.
My mother, Shirley Eloise Robertson Biggs, who worked as a nurse before she met and married my father, had studied piano; she too was quite accomplished, and my dad always believed that had she not needed to start earning a living right away after finishing high school she might have pursued her musical interests further. Chopin was perhaps her favorite composer, and she was a huge fan of Van Cliburn. As a teenager she began singing alto in the adult choir at her church, and had fond memories of taking part in performances there of works such as Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. While I was growing up she still played the piano occasionally, mostly in church. My mom loved the hymns she had sung and played in her youth, and I came to love many of them as well. In fact, one of my early musical epiphanies was the realization, at the age of nine or ten, that I was not tethered to singing only the melody line of a hymn, but could easily follow and sing the other parts and even switch parts in the middle of a verse. This not only stood me in good stead as I learned to sing at sight, but also helped me develop my inner ear, cultivate an innate feeling for harmony, and had the added virtue of making church services considerably less dull than they otherwise would have been.
The first music I actually can remember hearing on my parents’ phonograph, when I was very small, was the original cast recording of My Fair Lady, still a pretty new show when I came along. Soon I would have both it and the cast album of West Side Story, which also got a lot of play in our house, virtually memorized. The first music that completely captured my imagination was that of The Beatles, whom I, like so many other Americans, first encountered on the evening of February 9, 1964 when they first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was hooked, and remain so to this day.
Piano lessons began for me at the age of nine. My mother had tried her best to begin instilling in me the rudiments of proper technique, but soon gave up, as the kind of patience required for this admittedly difficult task was not exactly her strong suit. She took me to Sister Teresa Angela (Sisters of Charity of Nazareth), who taught private piano lessons at Helena’s Sacred Heart Academy and would become my first music teacher. She was a very kind and generous soul, to whom I owe a great deal, as you will see once we have gotten through the next and—I cringe to add—hokiest part of this narrative.
Not long after beginning my lessons with Sister Teresa, I was in a fifth grade Language Arts class, taught by another wonderful human being, Carrie Garofas. Miss Garofas also loved music, and had a lovely soprano voice. She assigned our class a story about Mozart, including tales of his childhood triumphs as a virtuoso performer and composer who dazzled royalty and musical luminaries alike. Soon after this we also read about George Gershwin, who overcame modest beginnings to become one of America’s most celebrated composers, and then about Beethoven, who—having survived abuse at the hands of his perpetually drunken father, and despite suffering profound deafness and its resulting social isolation—produced the works that have in the minds of so many made him the very embodiment of the word “composer.”
As I got older and studied more music history I came to understand the extent to which such accounts often have been oversimplified, embellished and romanticized, but by then of course it was too late to save me. I was hooked again, this time on the idea of writing my own music, all because Miss Garofas had us read stories about Mozart, Beethoven and Gershwin that clearly resonated deeply with me; never mind the fact that they likely were less than wholly accurate. Never mind as well that I still was relatively new to the concept of reading music, and wasn’t even always certain exactly where the bar lines should go in the “pieces” I was endeavoring to set down on paper. But, practicality be damned, I somehow knew in my gut that I was going to be a composer, regardless of a) what anyone else thought of it, and b) the fact that I as yet had no real idea what it entailed.
It is here that Sister Teresa, God bless her, reenters the scene. For my fledgling attempts at composition, I at first had nothing to write on except regular notebook filler, on which I scrawled staff lines as required. In a special desk drawer Sister Teresa kept a stash of music manuscript pads for writing out scales and exercises for students. I had never seen actual music paper before and was fascinated by it, as she readily could tell. She also was plenty smart enough to know that it gave her some serious leverage, i.e., if I came to my lesson prepared and did well I could expect to take home a few sheets of her manuscript paper. Not long afterward I discovered that one could buy notebooks full of the stuff down on Cherry Street at Gist Music Company. That establishment, which I’m happy to say still exists, is where I also purchased a slim manual, Preparing Music Manuscript, published by the company that produced the Everybody’s Favorite Piano Pieces series. I read it from cover to cover (though both covers now are long gone) and absorbed its lessons; it still is in my possession, currently residing in a manila file folder.
So here’s to my parents, who provided an atmosphere in which music, art and literature were valued, and allowed me to watch Ed Sullivan’s show on that February evening in 1964, and to my two prime enablers—a nun and an elementary school teacher—who inspired and cultivated my curiosity and helped open to me the strange and wonderful path of being a composer. Sister Teresa eventually left Helena (she was transferred—or whatever term properly attaches to the relocation of nuns) and moved to the Louisville, Kentucky area at about the time I was preparing to enter that special Circle of Hell known as the seventh grade. She continued to keep in touch by letter until I was a freshman in college, informing me of concerts she attended in nearby Cincinnati and inquiring as to how my life was going. Sister Teresa already was fairly advanced in age when I studied with her, so I have to think she must have passed on many years ago. Miss Garofas, sadly, departed this earth in February of 1979, not long before my father died, and at almost the same age—too young—as he. I can only hope that she and Sister Teresa had even the slightest inkling of how important they were in pointing me toward my vocation as a composer, and that they could take some small measure of satisfaction in having done so.