A Brief History

of the American Accordionists’ Association Composers’ Commissioning Committee

by Dr. Robert Young McMahan, Chair,
AAA Composers’ Commissioning Committee

Dr Robert Young McMahan, Elsie Bennett 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 she established a music school. 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, she 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 she 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 unless the latter were commissioned and paid to write for it. Having recently joined the governing board of the then fifteen-year-old AAA, she 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 as its chair.

Elsie took on the charge with great passion and three years later, in 1957, succeeded in persuading the internationally famous 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. 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. During this half century of dedicated and all-consuming service, she 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. In recent years, rising commissioning fees and shrinking budgets have yielded only five additional works by five composers. A list of all the commissioned works can be found on the AAA’s recently updated website at http://ameraccord.com/aaacommissions.php

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. For additional information, please contact Dr. McMahan at grillmyr@gmail.com

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