Go to Content
Columbia College Chicago
William Foster McDaniel

William Foster McDaniel

International Dictionary of Black Composers

Music List
Composer Essay

Born in Columbus, Ohio, December 26, 1940.

Education: Began studying piano with Mrs. Zelda Pfeiffer; Garfield Elementary, Columbus, 1950; East High School, Columbus, 1957; Dublin High School, Dublin, Ohio, 1958; Conservatory of Music, Capital University, Columbus, preparatory division, studied with Richard Lehman, age ten, undergraduate piano studies with Loy Kohler, music theory and counterpoint with William Bailey, B.Mus., 1963; Boston University, Mass., studied piano with Lawrence Leighton-Smith and Béla Böszörményi-Nagy, composition and orchestration with Gardner Read, M.Mus., 1966; Paris, studied piano with Jacques Février, 1966–67.

Composing and Performing Career: Musical director and conductor for The Fantasticks, 1970–76, Bubblin’ Brown Sugar, 1976, Timbuktu, 1978, Ain’t Misbehavin’, 1979, Sophisticated Ladies, 1990–91, Fiddler on the Roof, 1991, House of Flowers, 1992, Once on This Island, 1993; pianist in solo recitals and chamber concerts with the New Symphony of New York and the Yonkers Philharmonic.

Memberships: American Federation of Musicians; ASCAP.

Honors/Awards: National Association of Negro Musicians, first prize, national piano competition, 1965; Fulbright Scholarship, 1966–67.

Mailing Address: 150 West 82nd Street, Apt. # 4A, New York, NY 10024-7305.

Music List

Instrumental Solos


Cello Sonata. Unpublished manuscript.


Flute Sonata. Unpublished manuscript.


Clarinet Sonata. Unpublished manuscript.


Alto Saxophone Sonata. Unpublished manuscript.


Five Easy Pieces. Unpublished manuscript.

Four Preludes. Unpublished manuscript.

Sonata. Unpublished manuscript.

Toccata. Unpublished manuscript.

Small Instrumental Ensemble


String Quartet. Unpublished manuscript.


Flute Septet. Unpublished manuscript.

Saxophone Quartet. Unpublished manuscript.

Woodwind Quintet. Unpublished manuscript. Premiere, 1975.


Brass Quintet. Unpublished manuscript.


Sextet for Piano and Woodwind Quintet. Unpublished manuscript. Premiere, 1993.

Quintet for String Quartet and Piano. Unpublished manuscript.

Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano. Unpublished manuscript.

String Orchestra

Overture for String Orchestra or String Overture. 1995. Unpublished manuscript. Premiere, 1995.

Full Orchestra

Elegy. Unpublished manuscript.

Orchestra (Chamber or Full) with Soloists

Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra. Unpublished manuscript. Premiere, 1974.

Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. Unpublished manuscript. Premiere, 1983.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, no. 1. Unpublished manuscript. Premiere, 1975.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, no. 2. Unpublished manuscript.

Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra. Unpublished manuscript. Premiere, 1975.

Concerto for Two Flutes and String Orchestra. Unpublished manuscript. Premiere, 1985.

Solo Voice

Five Songs with Debra. Unpublished manuscript.

Four Love Songs. 1976. Unpublished manuscript. Contents: Gramercy Park; Coney Island; Union Square; Central Park at Dusk. Also arranged for soprano and chamber orchestra.

“Soul” (medium voice, piano, optional bass). Cincinnati, Ohio: Stimuli, 1971.

Voice with Instrumental Ensemble

Seven Songs for Soprano and Nonet. Unpublished manuscript.

William Foster McDaniel’s varied output of concert music includes six concertos, five sonatas, three art song collections, and several works for chamber ensembles. His compositions often reflect his extensive training as a professional pianist as well as composer.

McDaniel’s musical training began at the age of five and a half, with private piano lessons in Columbus, Ohio. At age ten, he entered the preparatory division of the Conservatory of Music at Capital University, Columbus, where he received a bachelor of music degree in 1963. He studied piano with Richard Lehman and Loy Kohler and theory and counterpoint with William Bailey. McDaniel won first prize, in 1965, in a national piano competition sponsored by the National Association of Negro Musicians. In 1966, he received a master’s degree in music from Boston University, where he studied piano with Lawrence Leighton-Smith and Béla Böszörményi-Nagy, and composition with Gardner Read. McDaniel pursued his piano training with Jacques Février, in Paris, through a Fulbright scholarship in 1966–67.

McDaniel’s composing career has focused on adapting traditional art music genres and instrumental combinations to a modernist musical vocabulary. His output includes numerous large-scale orchestral works such as the Overture for String Orchestra (1995). He is perhaps best known for his concertos for piano, flute, and alto saxophone, which have received many performances. McDaniel has written three concertos for the piano, including the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, no. 1, the Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (both premiered 1975), and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, no. 2. His Concerto for Flute and Orchestra was premiered in 1983 by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra and has since been performed by the Housing Authority Orchestra, the Mozart Society Orchestra at Harvard University, the Philharmonia of Greensboro (N.C.), and the Savannah Symphony Orchestra (Ga.). Other concertos include the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra (premiered 1974) and the Concerto for Two Flutes and String Orchestra (premiered 1985).

McDaniel’s solo sonatas include works for cello, flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone with piano accompaniment, as well as a solo piano sonata. His chamber works encompass quartets (String Quartet, Saxophone Quartet), quintets (Woodwind Quintet, Brass Quintet), one sextet (Sextet for Piano and Woodwind Quintet), one septet (Flute Septet), and the Seven Songs for Soprano and Nonet.

In addition to his composing career, McDaniel is active as a pianist, conductor, arranger, and musical director for both concert repertoire and popular musics. He has conducted many on- and off-Broadway musicals, acted as guest conductor on several television shows, and arranged and directed nightclub acts for Nell Carter, Eartha Kitt, and Melvin Van Peebles, among others. He has been soloist with the New Symphony of New York and the Yonkers Philharmonic in his own composition, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, no. 1.

Four Love Songs (1976)
In Four Love Songs, McDaniel set four poems by the American poet Sara Teasdale (1884–1933) for soprano voice with piano accompaniment. The poems, originally written around 1914, were published posthumously in 1937 in Teasdale’s Collected Poems. Each paints a portrait of New York City lovers in various locations and circumstances. The four New York poems set by McDaniel reveal a cycle of romantic entanglements from the intense passion of “Gramercy Park,” to the disappointment and rejection of “Coney Island” and “Union Square,” to the optimism of the concluding “Central Park at Dusk.”
Teasdale’s works are a product of a transitional period in American poetry. Although using the conventional form and style of 19th-century romantic poetry, Teasdale’s narratives describe the transition from Victorian femininity to modern womanhood. Her poetry deftly combines contemporary urban imagery within traditionally pastoral frameworks. McDaniel’s atmospheric settings provide an ideal complement to Teasdale’s poetry. In each song, stylistic juxtapositions portray the ambiance of the location, the mood of the text, and the interactions of the characters.

McDaniel emphasizes the musical contrasts of Four Love Songs in two ways: vivid text painting and modernistic musical techniques. McDaniel’s text illustrations (usually in the piano accompaniment) portray one overriding poetic image at the heart of the literary conflict and physical location. For example, in “Gramercy Park,” the poem describes a couple circling around a small park in Greenwich Village that is locked (“But every iron gate was locked/Lest if we entered peace would go/We circled it a dozen times”). The iron gates that bar the couple are represented by a two-chord ostinato in the piano part that serves as a structure, appearing at the opening and at the close of the piece.

In “Coney Island,” the romantic conflict escalates and is reflected in the location: the famous amusement park, deserted in a winter storm (“The winter sea winds blow/There is no shelter here”) mirrors the lovers’ unhappy relationship (“There cannot be for us a second spring”). McDaniel evokes this tense scene by building the work around a trill in the high piano register that alternates with and eventually succumbs to cascading, primarily whole-tone 32nd-note figures. The undulating tremolo-like accompaniment effectively combines angry emotions with the imagery of a fierce winter storm, and even the motion and excitement of a roller-coaster ride.

By comparison, “Union Square” is the most conventional setting. The text describes the rush-hour bustle of a central business area, as observed through the eyes of separating lovers (“With the man I love who loves me not/I walked in the streetlamp’s flares/We watched the world go home that night/In a flood through Union Square”). McDaniel sets this text to a relaxed waltz in C minor, contrasting the hurried “flood” of people with the casual but pained observations of the narrator. The choice of a tonal waltz may symbolize the nostalgia and romance of a bygone era, musically echoing the protagonist’s sense of loss.

McDaniel uses a clash of conventional tonal language and genres with modernistic techniques, often in conjunction with the pictorial representations described above. “Coney Island” uses descending bitonal clusters in the piano accompaniment (each of which is based around a whole-tone axis) against the angular chromatic sequences of the vocal part (“The sea creeps up”). The experimental compositional language of “Coney Island” contrasts remarkably with the conventional setting of the following “Union Square.” The stylistic juxtaposition reflects Teasdale’s own poetic multiplicity.

Both “Gramercy Park” and “Central Park at Dusk” use similar pentatonic structures (i.e., chords built on fifths). In “Gramercy Park,” each chord in the piano ostinato is structured around successive fifths (d–a–e–b–f-sharp and e-flat–b-flat–f–c–g), possibly representing both the dense structure of the locked iron gates as well as the couple’s circling motion around the park. Teasdale’s poetic conflict of urban lovers banned from a pastoral Eden is portrayed harmonically by McDaniel’s sympathetic setting.

Similar pentatonic clusters are used in the concluding song, “Central Park at Dusk,” which completes the romantic and musical cycle. The main image is of the park asleep under buildings that “loom high as castles” before the spring, impressions that are linked to the hope of future romance (“Silent as women wait for love/The world is waiting for the spring”). McDaniel uses a variety of modernistic effects to paint the scene. Most notable are the dense cluster chords portraying the weight of the skyscrapers looming over the park. The first cluster chords present pentatonic scales (e–f-sharp–a–b–c-sharp and e–f-sharp–g-sharp–b–c-sharp, respectively). The registral and harmonic density of this opening passage is constructed with the higher range, sparse rhythm, and melody of the closing section, particularly the description of the park itself (“There is no sign of leaf or bud”). In this contrast, McDaniel again underlines the separation of urban and rural scenes characteristic of the poem.

In its use of modernistic language and evocative writing, Four Love Songs demands virtuoso performances by pianist and vocalist alike. As such, McDaniel’s settings present a distinctive and responsive realization of Teasdale’s New York portraits.

Gayle Sherwood