Victor Fell Yellin, born and raised on the north side of Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts, attended public schools graduating from the Boston Latin School in 1942. His earliest music training was as a clarinet player in the high school band and later as a saxophonist in a local swing band. After a year at the New England Conservatory of Music he was drafted into the United States Army. As an infantryman, later bugler-messenger, he fought in the European Theatre mainly in Alsace, Germany, and the Tyrol in Austria.
After demobilization in 1946 he was admitted to Harvard College where he concentrated in music especially under the tutelage of Irving Gifford Fine, who encouraged him to write a senior honors thesis on The Case for American Opera; Virgil Thomson and Marc Blizstein and to study with Darius Milhaud in Paris after graduation in 1949. With his wife, Isabel Satenig Joseph, a music critic for The Boston Post, he set off for Paris where he studied composition with the French master and assisted at various performances of his operatic works, especially Les Eumenides in Brussels and Bolivar at the Opéra.
On return to the States, he was accepted as a candidate for advanced degrees at Harvard. The main attraction was Walter Piston, one of America’s great symphonists and teachers of composition. However, since Piston did not believe in academic degrees for creative artists, Yellin (like other composers) had to enter into the musicological program in order to study with him. Thus he began his academic career as professor of music history. He received his Ph. D. degree (1957) with the thesis on The Life and Operatic Works of George Whitefield Chadwick.
At the same time, he pursued composing and conducting with his one-act opera Prescription for Judy (Boston 1953), the libretto by Isabel Joseph, and the production of Gertrude Stein’s and Virgil Thomson’s The Mother Of Us All (Sanders Theatre, Cambridge 1956).
That year he was appointed assistant professor and conductor of the chorus at New York University, a position that among other things made it possible to maintain the friendship with Thomson and Blitzstein, especially during the revival of the latter’s Regina by the New York City Center Opera Company. In 1958 he went to Williams College as a professor of music and conductor of the Williams Glee Club. There he met John K. Savacool who would write the libretto of his opera, Abaylar, based on the life and misfortunes of the 12th-century scholar and teacher, Peter Abélard. No sooner had he settled into the routine of life in the little Ivy League college, when, in 1960, he was proffered an associate professorship by The Ohio State University. This he could not refuse.
In 1961, he returned to New York University after only one academic year in Columbus. Besides composing and teaching, Yellin helped establish in 1965 a collegiate system for NYU dormitories. As the first Master his tour of duty was anything but uneventful, especially during the student revolts of the late sixties. He resigned this position in 1972 devoting himself to work and family which now had added a son to its ranks. The unexpected death of his wife, companion, and editor, in 1986 was a shock from which he never recovered. The song cycle Dark of The Moon (Sara Teasdale) is her memorial.
Performances of his works include excerpts from Abaylar, Opera in Three Acts , by the Metropolitan Opera Studio (New York 1965), Composers’ Showcase (New York 1967), New York University (New York 1973), and Artsanglia (Hadleigh 1995 and 2004); Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (New York 1982); Dark of the Moon, a song cycle for Soprano, Clarinet, Violoncello, and Piano (Hadleigh 1986 and Baltimore 1994); Sonata for Violin and Piano (new York, Lincoln Center, 1990); Variations on “Bye Bye Blues” for Violin and Piano (New York, Lincoln Center, 1991), Variations on "Bye Bye Blues" for Violoncello and Piano (New York, Merkin, 2002); and Four Brazilian Piano Tangos, arranged for string quartet (Hadleigh 2004).
Besides many scholarly articles, he published Chadwick, Yankee Composer (Smithsonian Press 1990), an orchestral reconstruction of William Diamond’s The Æthiop (Covent Garden 1812), music by Rayner Taylor (Philadelphia 1814) in: Volume 2, Early Melodrama in America (Garland Publishing 1994, recording: New World Records 232), and The Omnibus Idea (Harmonic Park Press 1998).
LIST OF COMPOSITIONS
Prescription for Judy, opera in one act.
ABAYLAR, opera in three acts
Thomas Linley, et al. R.B. Sheridan’s The Duenna (London 1775), orchestral restoration
John Bray The Indian Princess, (Philadelphia 1808), orchestral restoration
Rayner Taylor, The Ethiop (Philadelphia 1831), orchestral restoration. Full score and commentary in Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theatre, “Early Melodrama in America”, Vol II (New York: Garland, 1994). Also, New World Records CD232 contains both The Indian Princess and The Ethiop performed by Federal Music Society, orchestra of contemporary instruments.
ORCHESTRA, CONCERT BAND:
Passacaglia for String Orchestra
Abaylar Suite for Concert Band
Suite for Two Equal Trumpets and Orchestra
Benjamin Carr. The Federal Overture (New York 1793) orchestral arrangement
Sonatina for Violin and Piano
Sonata for Violoncello and Piano; for Violin and Piano
Dark of the Moon, a song cycle on Poems by Sara Teasdale for Soprano, Clarinet, Violoncello and Piano
Variations on “Bye, Bye Blues” for Violoncello and Piano
Variations on “Bye, Bye Blues” for Violin and Piano
Variations on “Bye, Bye Blues” for Trumpet and String Quartet
The Birth of the Blues for Violoncello Quartet
Ten Brazilian Tangos arranged for String Quartet
Quintet for Brass
Arrangement: Alexandre Tansman Suite dans le style ancien for Trumpet and
Arrangement : Ernesto Nazareth Odeon, Tang Brasiliero for Trumpet and String Quartet
On The Night Of A Friend’s Wedding (Edwin Arlington Robinson), Baritone and Piano
Recitative (Thomas Browne), Tenor and Piano
Night Song at Amalfi (Sara Teasdale), Soprano and Piano
A Horse, Too, Has Little Babies [In Yiddish] (Sarah Fell Yellin), Soprano or Tenor and Piano
The Queen’s Aria from ABAYLAR (John K. Savacool), Mezzo-soprano, English Horn or Alto Saxophone, Violoncello and Piano
The Queen’s Aria from ABAYLAR for Mezzo-soprano and Orchestra
On The Death Of Mr Purcell (John Dryden) Baritone and Piano
Songs for Baritone and Piano. Text by Edwin Arlington Robinson:
The Pity of the Leaves
An Introduction to Dogs (Ogden Nash) SATB with Piano
For City Spring (Stephen Vincent Benet), SSATB, unaccompanied
July Mountain (Wallace Stevens), SATB with Piano
Upon The Sweeping Flood (Edward Taylor), SATB, unaccompanied
My friend Victor — by Thomas McIntosh
It is hard for me to believe that more than 40 years have passed since I first made the acquaintance of Victor, as one of his graduate students at New York University. As one of his students I was exposed to his irascible humour and musicological rigour during a number of seminars, but the teacher/student relationship began to break down as I was cajoled (or perhaps railroaded) into helping him prepare extracts from his opera Abaylar for consideration by the Metropolitan Opera for production. Victor sang all the roles at the old Metropolitan Opera house audition, and Placido Domingo had just entered the stage door as we arrived.
My removal to England put our friendship into a letter-writing phase, of which I still have many dozens over a long period of time. A dozen or so years ago he began to visit my wife Miranda and me here at The Old School during the summer time, and it has been a high point of our existence here. We paid him a visit in New York in the Autumn of 2005 Notwithstanding the fact that his health was failing, he was in good form and bursting with stimulating theories about music and the history of music. Sadly, he died shortly afterwards.
This homage is an attempt by me to acknowledge his outstanding musicianship, to proclaim his passionate devotion to the core values of music as an art form, and to pay tribute to his influence in my own musical development. We have performed several of his compositions over the years at The Old School and I hope to programme more so that a wider public can hear and come to appreciate his distinctive musical voice.