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Robert Owens

Male | Composers


Robert Lee Owens (1925-2017) had simultaneous careers as a concert pianist, vocal accompanist, composer, and stage and television actor; and for most of his adult life, he has been an American expatriate in Europe, principally in Munich, Germany, where he has lived for more than 50 years. Owens was born in 1925 in Denison, Texas. When he was two years old, his family moved to Berkeley, California. His mother, Alpharetta Helm, a noted pianist, began to teach him to play the piano when he was four and continued for four years until she was hospitalized for tuberculosis. She died in 1937. Owens then studied privately with Genevieve Longrus, the music teacher at Williard Junior High School, and on enrollment in Berkeley High School, he studied music theory with Dora O'Neill, who recognized his outstanding talent. He had already begun to compose short piano pieces, and at the age of 15, he wrote a piano concerto and was the soloist in its premiere with the Berkeley Young People's Symphony Orchestra. About that time, Owens composed his first songs, of which Three Songs for Soprano, op. 22, is extant. After his stint in the military, Owens enrolled at the Ecole Normale de Musique to study under Jules Genty and Alfred Cortot. He received his Diplome de Perfection in piano in 1950. He debuted as a concert pianist in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1952, and continued his studies with Professor Grete Hinterhofer at the Vienna Academy of Music. By 1957, he had given concerts in Denmark and in Austria. In 1959, Owens returned to Europe, this time settling in Hamburg, Germany. While there he continued composing and accompanying singers, many of whom sang his compositions. During his time in Hamburg, Owens composed Heart on the Wall, five songs for soprano and piano on poems by Langston Hughes, for American soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, who performed them in that city. His song cycle Tearless, also on poems by Hughes, for baritone and piano, was performed by Lawrence Winters at the Hamburger Staatsoper. Although Owens visits the United States infrequently, in 1978 he returned as artist-in-residence to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where his vocal compositions were recorded in a program sponsored by faculty and students and featuring Owens as accompanist. In 1979, he also briefly visited the University of Wisconsin at River Falls and, in 1992, Texas Southern University in Houston, as an artist-in-residence. .  Mr. Owens is the recipient of a commendation from the National Association of Negro Musicians and the Preisträger International Lifetime Achievement Award from AnDante Kulturmagazin. In 2009, the National Opera Association recognized Mr. Owens with the Legacy Award for lifetime achievement in opera. 2012 saw a resurgeance in his music stateside, with the composer making appearances at several U.S. institutions. Robert Owens died January 5, 2017 in Munich, Germany.

Tearless, recorded songs with Donnie Ray Albert



Published Work