The music world was saddened to learn of the death last week of Elvis Aaron Presley, beloved American composer and performer. Speaking to the press outside the family home near Lausanne, Switzerland, a Presley family spokesperson confirmed that the reclusive composer died in his sleep, surrounded by family and friends. Presley was 77 years old.
Presley’s story was perhaps unique in American music. He was born in 1935 in the rich agricultural country of northern Mississippi, and at an early age he showed unusual musical talent, singing and playing the guitar at family gatherings and in the Tupelo church choir. He burst on the national scene in 1954 with the success of songs like “Heartbreaker” and “That’s All Right.” He performed on early television variety shows, once singing “Hound Dog” to an actual dog, and when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, the telecast reached more than three-quarters of the potential viewing audience. His early career peaked at about the time he was inducted into the Army in 1958, where by all reports he was a model soldier. After his discharge he appeared in several forgettable movies but did not actually perform again until his famous comeback television concert in 1968.
The transformation of Elvis Presley, popular rockabilly singer, into Aaron Presley, reclusive American composer, began midlife at age 39, when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer and began a long course of radiation and chemotherapy, first at a private clinic in Memphis and later at Sloan-Kettering in New York. Presley disappeared from public view for more than four years. When he reemerged briefly in 1978 to receive a Lifetime Achievement award at the Grammys, he was to all appearances a profoundly changed man. Decades later, when receiving an honorary doctorate from Cambridge, he told a BBC interviewer that the transformation began during chemotherapy. “One afternoon when the nurse had left the room and I was alone on the bed with the chemo bag and the needle in my arm, I looked at the plastic tubing and saw how delicate the flow of life really is, in and out,” he said. “Up until then I had been in a mindless trajectory. At that moment I started to think really hard about my life and music – about the music I wanted to hear in whatever time I had left.”
The composer could not sing during this time and could scarcely eat or drink without pain, a dark time he explored in haunting guitar sonatas like “Chaconne” and “Delta Passacaglia.” “I had a lot of time to think about the actual form of music in architectonic terms, and I could visualize new progressions of tone and harmony. Music took on physical space, or more properly, distinct polyphonic shape within space, and I just started rearranging the shapes like a child with a set of blocks. Remember what Eliot said about music heard so deeply that you become the music? I knew the rock-and-roll gestalt was too simple, too dimensionless. It was over and I had to move on.”
Indeed Presley moved on. His slow recovery from the cancer treatments matched a steady transformation from singer to musicologist and successful composer. By his own account he spent almost three years after chemotherapy listening to early Baroque music, developing an abiding passion for the instrumental works of Bach, particularly the cello suites and the partitas for solo violin. They played continuously at Graceland, his Memphis home, and later at Crevecoeur above Lausanne in Switzerland, where he moved in early 1983. In later years he enjoyed Bartok, whose influence can be heard in parts of Presley’s “Ricercare Variations” for strings.
Not all transformations please the American public. Presley’s initial opera, the difficult “Priscilliad,” first performed in New York in 1987 and for which he composed both libretto and score, met with critical and public apathy. Four years later his collaboration with Joseph Brodsky, “Minnie Mae Hood,” was a resounding critical and commercial success, and the next year his string quartet, “Mississippi,” won his first Pulitzer Prize for composition. One year later his first guitar concerto impressed critics and public alike with what Audiophile Magazine called “a stunning quantum leap into the interdependence of non-integral tone, directional sound, catharsis and texture.” Despite its technical demands the piece became standard orchestral repertoire and even now remains a benchmark work for aspiring classical guitarists.
Presley’s crowning achievement was the oratorio “Memphis Messiah,” one of the foremost American musical accomplishments of the century. The New York Times review of its premiere at Lincoln Center in April 1998 cited “an incomparable imagination well beyond the formal modal conception of melody,” and the reviewer admitted, “I was profoundly moved.”
Two years later, returning home after a triumphant appearance at Montreaux, where each year he led an international youth orchestra in a performance of his choral symphony, tragedy struck again. Presley was seriously injured when his Cadillac failed to negotiate a turn in the roads above Lausanne. He never fully recovered his health and from that point on was rarely seen outside his family compound. Photographs before the accident showed a lean, tall, grey-haired figure walking in the hills above Lac Leman or at the gate of his modest chalet, often with his beloved Portuguese water dog, “Parker.” After a long recovery the camera usually found him seated at his desk or piano, now with the shaved head and round reading glasses immortalized in his iconic “Got Milk?” advertisement of 2004.
Last year a routine checkup showed early signs of leukemia. Within months it turned aggressive, and when initial treatments proved ineffective, Presley declined further therapy and began collecting his papers and sketches. A few days ago he was buried in a small cemetery in the hills above his beloved Crevecoeur, next to his second wife, Kiri, who died in 2007.
Fittingly, at the time of his death Presley was working on the Benedictus of a “Requiem,” based on the Gitanjali epic of Rabindranath Tagore, whose poetry Presley discovered shortly after his separation from Priscilla Beaulieu in 1973. The poet’s works had inspired earlier short pieces like “Sonatas for Guitar and Soprano.” An orchestral suite composed of themes from the Kyrie, Credo and Sanctus portions of the Requiem premiered in San Francisco in 2009.
Reached at his office in the House of Commons, a solemn Sir John Lennon told reporters, “I always thought he was different from the rest of us, just bigger in every way. In those early days we all wrote ditties and scratched the surface a little, sure, but he plunged into it like a waterfall and rode it all the way down, didn’t he, way past the rest of us. What a man. What a life.”