1963

William Bergsma: UW Composer of International Renown


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"Bergsma is fondly remembered by his colleagues at the UW for his tremendous drive and leadership. Through his tireless efforts, Meany Hall was built as a performance and classroom space, incorporating a professional proscenium stage, Meany theater, and an experimental 'box,' the Studio Theater in Meany Hall."

--Statement by the UW School of Music announcing the
William Bergsma Memorial Concert, October 1994

The late William Bergsma, director of the UW School of Music from 1963 to 1971, was a composer of international acclaim. He is known for his opera, The Wife of Martin Guerre; works for full orchestra including First Symphony, A Carol on Twelfth Night, Chameleon Variations, In Celebration, and Toccata for the Sixth Day; and suites from the ballets Paul Bunyan and Gold and the Senor Commandante. He composed string quartets, a woodwind quintet, Tangents for Piano, and other works for voice, chorus, and band. Bergsma also was founder of the UW's Contemporary Group (see The Contemporary Group).

In musical style, he has been characterized as a composer who "never deserted tonality" and who "saw dozens of his former avant-garde colleagues returning to the fold," noted an obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.footnote 1

Bergsma earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Rochester in 1942 and a master's degree in music in 1943. Before coming to the UW, he served on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music in New York from 1946 to 1963, where he also was associate dean from 1961 to 1963.

Bergsma was the recipient of many distinguished honors during his career. Most prestigious among them was the award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an honor awarded to only two other Northwest personalities: painter Mark Tobey, and poet Theodore Roethke.

He was twice recipient of Guggenheim Fellowships, in addition to receiving the Columbia Records Chamber Music Award, the Bearns Prize from Columbia University, the James D. Phelan Award, and the Citation of the Music Library Association.

Organizations that commissioned Bergsma's work include the Library of Congress, the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, the League of Composers, and the Juilliard Foundation National Institute of Arts and Letters.

At a Memorial Concert held October 13, 1994 to honor the late composer, a variety of Bergsma's music was performed by a group of musicians that included some of the UW's own faculty members: Emilie Berendsen, soprano; Randolph Hokanson, pianist; Toby Saks, cellist; William O. Smith, clarinet; Stuart Dempster, trombone; and the Soni Ventorum Wind Quintet.


  1. "Composer W. Bergsma dead at 72," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mar. 21, 1994, p. B1.

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