Robert Helps’ biography

A timeline

1928 : Robert Helps is born at Passaic, New Jersey (near New York). He grows up not far from there, at Ridgewood, where he lived until the age of twenty.

1933 : encouraged by his mother, he begins to play the piano at the age of five.

1936 : his mother enrolls him at the Juilliard Prep. School in Manhattan where he quickly manifests his penchant for composition.

1939 : at eleven years of age, he is one of the prize winners of a national competition for child composers organized by conductor Leopold Stokowski. The winning work, Dance of the Cinders on the Hearth (composed around 1937), is premiered under Stokowski’s baton by the NBC orchestra and broadcast on the radio.

1943 : he leaves the Juilliard Institute of Music Arts to study privately with Abby Whiteside.

1944 : in addition to her piano instruction, Abby Whiteside introduces Helps to Roger Sessions with whom he begins composition lessons.

1953-1963 : at the age of twenty, he moves to New Haven, Connecticut. He lives modestly working at a record store, teaching private lessons, all while beginning to give concerts. During this period, he composes around ten works, such as his First Symphony (1953-55) which is distinguished by several prizes: the Fromm Foundation Award and Walter W. Naumberg Award.

1963 : he moves to New York (first to Greenwich Village then to the more comfortable Brooklyn Heights). He meets writer James Purdy (who is his neighbor in Brooklyn) with whom he becomes close friends. Helps decides to pursue a triple career teaching, playing piano, and composing.

1963-1967 : he gives up to thirty concerts a year in the most prestigious New York halls, while continuing to compose (notably his Piano Concerto no. 1, one of his first commissioned pieces) and teach piano (at the Manhattan School and New England Conservatory). Around this time, C. F. Peters begins to publish his scores. In 1966, he records (for RCA) an album entitled New Music for the Piano, containing numerous premieres by important American composers of his day.

1967-1978 : he becomes professor at the San Francisco Conservatory in 1967 and begins to divide his time between the West and East coasts of the United States. In 1973 he is named artist in residence at University of California, Davis. This same year sees an important premiere: his Piano Concerto no. 2, a commission by The Ford Foundation and pianist Richard Goode. In 1976, he receives the prize of the Academy of Arts and Letters. During this decade he composes a dozen or so pieces including Gossamer Noons, for soprano and orchestra (1974).

1978-1993 : at fifty years of age, he permanently leaves New York for Tampa, Florida. Named professor at the University of South Florida, he divides his time between Tampa and San Francisco, where he continues to teach piano. After ten years of compositional silence, during which he gives a series of concerts dedicated to French masters (Fauré, Debussy, Ravel), he begins writing music again near the end of the 1980’s. In 1987, he composes namely Eventually The Carousel Begins for two pianos. In the early 1990’s, he passionately discovers the music of English composer John Ireland whose works he would often play until the end of his life. (The summit of this Ireland period would be a memorable concert given at New York’s Merkin Hall in 1996). In 1993, he undergoes a serious heart operation from which he has difficulty recovering.

1994-2001 : during this time, he continues to teach and give concerts (especially, between 1993 and 1996, by directing a very special series of concerts in a relaxed style: “Sensua by Candlelight” in which his students and friends would play). He also dedicates his energies to composition, playing new works, and recording his own music. Highlights of the period are Shall We Dance, for piano solo, premiered in 1994, a Symphony no. 2 completed in 1999 and a set of piano transcriptions. In 1996, a CD of his works is released by CRI (American Masters series). In 2000, he gives a solo concert at the Berlin Philharmonie.

2001 : he dies of cancer in Tampa.

2004 : a second monograph CD of his compositions appears on the Naxos label (American Classics).

During the summer of this same year, the Robert Helps Web Monument is launched on the internet.

Enter Web Monument