H. Owen Reed, 1910 - 2014 January 08 2014, 0 Comments

This week, the wind band community lost H. Owen Reed, a well-known composer and music educator, at the age of 103. It is likely that you know him as the person who wrote La Fiesta Mexicana, a very popular work for wind band, which has been recorded by countless ensembles, including the United States Marine Band. More on that later.

H. Owen Reed playing the jazz chart Misty at age 102

Reed began his life in a small Missouri town, where he grew up acquainted with traditional fiddle tunes and the popular piano music of the 1920’s. The piano was his primary instrument, but as he entered the world of higher education, he focused his musical talents on composition. He received a Bachelor of Music and a Master of Music degree from Louisiana State University, and a degree in French. He then went to the Eastman School of Music for his Ph.D., also in composition. Over the years, he studied with prominent composers, such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Bohuslav Martinů, and Arnold Schoenberg.

Immediately upon acquiring his Ph.D. in 1939, he began teaching at Michigan State University, and would continue to teach there until 1976. While there, he taught many composition students, many of which, such as David Maslanka and David Gillingham, have gone on to write wind band music of their own.

The music of H. Owen Reed has a certain fresh quality to it. While much of his most popular music, (ie. La Fiesta Mexicana) was composed in the mid-twentieth century, I feel as if much of it could have been written in the past few decades. A lot of his work stemmed the traditional music he grew up with, and academic research he did in the field of the traditional music of Mexico, and Native Americans. For example, Missouri Shindig is a piece he wrote for band in 1951, and is based on the fiddle tune “Give the Fiddler a Dram”, and emulates the traditional music of his childhood.

Then, of course, there’s La Fiesta Mexicana. The piece is in three movements, each of which relates back to Reed’s research in Mexico. The music he heard during his six month stay ranged from the sacred music of their churches (movement two is titled Mass), to the music of mariachi bands, to traditional Aztec music. Reed coaxes grand and luscious textures from the wind band, in a way that is not easy to do. The use of traditional and folk music makes his music relevant across generations, while still maintaining the fresh quality that emanates in all of his music.

H. Owen Reed lived a long, rich life, contributing all if not most of it to the creation of music, and educating others to do the same. While he will surely be missed, he legacy lives on in the music he has written, and in all the students he taught over the course of his life. Rest in peace.


-Brian Denu