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John Harbison

Institute Professor 
Professor of Composition and Chamber Music

Institute Professor 
Professor of Composition and Chamber Music

John Harbison
Institute Professor
Professor of Composition and Chamber Music

Professor John Harbison is among America's most distinguished artistic figures in contemporary music. He has conducted for the country’s premiere orchestras and held regular and long-term residencies with top national music festivals including Tanglewood. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for music composition, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Heinz Award and the Harvard Arts Medal.

He joined the MIT Department of Music as a faculty member in 1969.
In 1994 Harbison received the MIT Killian Faculty Achievement Award, and the following year he was nominated as an Institute Professor, the Institute’s highest faculty honor. At MIT he is the founder and coach-arranger of the Vocal Jazz Ensemble, plays piano with the faculty jazz group Strength in Numbers (SIN), and coaches a variety of other chamber music ensembles. He regularly composes and performs original music for special Institute events. 

Harbison received his bachelors degree from Harvard University and a master of fine arts degree from Princeton University.


Highlights of this interview include:

  • Growing up in a musical family he began studying music as a child first on violin and piano and then switching to viola.
  • Attending undergraduate school at Harvard and conducting the Bach Society Orchestra and studying music history.
  • Fellowship in Berlin for a year after finishing at Harvard.
  • Conducting school at Tanglewood and in Salzburg.
  •  Began graduate school at Princeton, met his future wife in the orchestra and was developing as a jazz musician.
  • Was commissioned to write an opera of the Great Gatsby.
  • Was commissioned to write a piece for the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel.
  • Was commissioned to write a piece for the Vatican
  • How he came to teaching at MIT and what is special about eaching students at MIT.
  • Received a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for “Flight from Egypt”.
  • Received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989.
  • The need for a better performance space at MIT for music.
  • Becoming an Institute Professor and the changing face of the arts at MIT.

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