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Pictures left: Dr Robert Young McMahan and Elsie Bennett
In the mid-1940s a newly married young woman, accordionist Elsie Bennett (nee Blum), moved with her groom from her native Detroit to his native Brooklyn, where they settled and established a music school in their new home on Empire Boulevard.
Elsie had been pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Music Theory back home at Wayne State University when she met her future husband, Mort Bennett. To complete her degree she took transferable courses in orchestration and composition at Columbia University.
Soon thereafter, Elsie pursued a Master’s degree at Columbia and was allowed to use accordion as her principal instrument. However, she had to rely on classical transcriptions of major works by composers of the past for most of her "traditional" repertoire, which she was allowed to do, given the lack of reputable original works for accordion from the nineteenth century (when the instrument was invented and still going through its early evolutionary stages).
Regarding contemporary repertoire, the problem was even greater, and Elsie found it difficult to find acceptable original or transcribed compositions by notable composers of the twentieth century to satisfy that part of her final recital requirements.
To help solve this problem for Elsie and future aspiring classical accordionists, her principal professor and advisor, distinguished composer and electronic music pioneer Otto Luening, informed her that the accordion would probably never gain a sizable original repertoire of significance from recognized composers until the latter were commissioned and paid to write for it.
Having recently joined the governing board of the then fifteen-year-old AAA, Elsie invited her mentor to speak at its next meeting with the aim of convincing its members to recognize this need and commence to commission worthy composers. After much heated debate, the majority of the board voted to create a composers’ commissioning committee, with Elsie serving as its chair.
Elsie took on the charge with great passion and three years later, in 1957, succeeded in persuading the internationally famous New York composer Paul Creston to produce the AAA’s first commissioned composition, Prelude and Dance (Op. 69). Many great composers and accordionist-composers were to follow in the ensuing decades.
I came on the scene in the early 1990s, having moved from the Baltimore area to New Jersey to accept a professorship in music theory and composition at The College of New Jersey (formerly Trenton State College). Though I had not been involved with the AAA since my student days competing in its national competitions, I contacted Elsie in the hope of seeing her correspondence with one of her distinguished past commissionees, William Grant Still, for an article I had been invited by another organization to writ for a music conference in honor of the late composer’s hundredth birthdate.
She generously complied and soon invited me to join the governing board of the AAA as a member of the CCC. In this capacity, I assisted her in selecting and commissioning composers, wrote articles on past commissioned composers for the annual AAA Festival Journal, performed their works at AAA events and other concerts, and authored a manual on how to compose for the accordion (Composer’s Guide to the Piano Accordion, a free download on the AAA website; see below for link).
Elsie held this post for the remainder of the twentieth century and into the beginning of the twenty-first, only retiring from it and conferring the title to this writer a short time before her passing in 2005. At the time of her resignation, the AAA Governing Board honored her with the title of CCC Chair Emeritus. In addition, the annual Elsie Bennett Composition Competition, with both open and junior divisions, was established shortly after her death, and has added many fine works to the classical accordion repertoire in addition to those of the CCC.
During her half century of dedicated and all-consuming service, Elsie achieved the amazing feat of having commissioned 33 composers who wrote 55 works collectively. They will always stand as a significant and pioneering part of the core of now well over a thousand and still increasing concert compositions for or including accordion worldwide, commissioned or not.
The CCC continues to forge on. However, rising fees for commissions, particularly for noted composers, and in recent years, funds for sufficiently attractive award money for competitions, have been aggravated by shrinking budgets due largely to lower membership numbers and special patronage than in the accordion heydays of the 1950s and 1960s.
The results have been fewer new commissioned works by seasoned composers than in the past and less competitors among young, aspiring composers in the competitions. For example, Paul Creston agreed to the payment of $250 in 1957 for his five-minute solo, Prelude and Dance, but a 2021 inflation table indicates that he would be asking for at least $2359 today, and from a far smaller budget than before as well. For these reasons, tax deductible contributions to these vital causes from interested AAA members and other friends of the classical accordion are encouraged and gratefully received. (See below for details.)
To explore the list of all the AAA commissioned works, both past and recent, plus links to recorded performances where possible, go to Music Commissions Home; for articles on the works, Music Commissions Articles List; and to obtain a free copy of Composer’s Guide to the Piano Accordion, Composer's Guide to the Piano Accordion.
Robert Young McMahan, CCC Chair
The AAA Composers’ Commissioning Committee welcomes donations from all those who love the classical accordion and wish to see its modern original concert repertoire continue to grow. The American Accordionists’ Association is a 501(c)(3) corporation. All contributions are tax deductible to the extent of the law. They can easily be made by visiting the AAA Store at http://www.ameraccord.com/cart.aspx which allows you to both make your donation and receive your tax deductible receipt on the spot.
Works funded by single donors or identified groups of donors would be dedicated to them and their names would appear on all published scores as well as in AAA published listings and pertinent articles.
For additional information, please contact Dr. McMahan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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