Meet the Composer: Jennifer Higdon

Meet the Composer: Jennifer Higdon

The Minnesota Orchestra performs Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral on June 1, as part of an Inside the Classics concert titled Love That Dare Not Speak. Read about the story behind the music and learn all about Jennifer in this Meet the Composer Q&A. 


blue cathedral is one of your most popular orchestral works. Why do you think it has been such a success? This is a hard question that I'm often asked. Because this work was written in part about my younger brother's death, it is by far my most personal composition. Much has been written about the work's symbolism through the use of the clarinet/flute duos, the chiming of Andy's birthdate, etc. I think that audiences recognize how much I've put of myself in the work and I think that they relate to issues of love, life and death.

List three words that you would use to describe your own music.
Rhythmic, melodic, heartfelt

List three words that your best friend would use to describe your music.
Passionate, driven, joyous (I asked)

What is one of the greatest challenges you’ve had to overcome during your career?
While being a woman as a classical composer was certainly a challenge, I also had to overcome the stigma of wanting to write works with melody and rhythm. I came up in the field when the atonal style was considered the future of classical music and I was harassed by some teachers and colleagues for not writing that type of music. Although it's gotten much easier over the years, reporters still ask me about writing "accessible" music as if it's an accusation. I'm very happy and proud if audience members, especially those who are new to classical music, respond. Bringing in new audience members is the only way that classical music will survive.  

What is one of your favorite career highlights thus far? It would probably be winning the Pulitzer Prize or hearing my name called as the winner of a Grammy. The Pulitzer committee doesn't inform winners ahead of time, so suddenly your phone and email begins to blow up when the announcement is made online. It's such a career milestone that stays with you forever. For the Grammys, I wasn't able to attend the ceremony when I won my first one so hearing "and the Grammy goes to" for my second one was certainly one of the most exciting moments of my career.

What excites you about music that is being composed today?
I love that composers feel free to express what it is they want to express in all sorts of musical languages. This was strongly discouraged when I was getting my Ph.D., and I think it makes for great variety in classical music.

What are you listening to lately?
The chamber operas of Britten (because I'm currently writing a chamber opera), the Hamilton soundtrack, as well as a new CD of string quartets by Caroline Shaw.

If you could have lunch with any other composer (past or present), who would you choose and why?
Igor Stravinsky! I would ask a million questions about his process of composing and his thoughts about creativity. I also think I'd be so awestruck that I doubt I could eat.

Do you have any special ties to Minnesota?
I have loved working with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, both of whom have commissioned me. I was honored to serve on the board of the American Composers Forum, which was founded in Minnesota. AND, I can't wait for my opera, Cold Mountain, to go up at Minnesota Opera!!!

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects you’d like to share with our audiences?
I'm currently writing my next opera, a chamber opera that's smaller and shorter than a typical grand opera, that will be premiered in 2020. Following that, I'm writing a mandolin concerto!


Details about Minnesota Orchestra's performance of blue cathedral.

More about composer Jennifer Higdon >>


Minnesota Orchestra Staff