A Musical Biography

“I write all this to give a bit of coherence to anyone surveying my works. True, it seems a disparate  list - songs, choral works, operas  and theatre pieces. But all are related.  Every piece of music should tell a story, and should tell it in a way that engages the interest of the performers and of the listeners.  Every piece of music has a beginning, a middle and an end, and its performance forms a journey. My challenge as a composer and a conductor has always been to make that journey effective and successful.  This is what I have learned; this is what I believe; and this is what I teach. This is what underlies all my music - from the single song to the choral symphony.”

Bruce Trinkley’s musical education began in his childhood in West Virginia, when in 3rd grade he had noontime piano lessons with Sister Mary Esther at Sacred Heart School in Bluefield, and then continuing with college professor Russell Falt. As a seventh grade choir accompanist at Princeton (WV) Junior High School, he first learned the importance of the accompanist and the indefatigable work ethic required of all performers for the success of any choral work.  

Moving to Los Angeles, Trinkley spent his junior year under the tutelage of Alice Sturdy (her mantra: “In the Beginning was the Word.”) at Narbonne High School. In a production of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon, he was cast as Mr. Lundie, the village schoolmaster, while also being a member of the orchestra. The skill with which he would slip between playing a character in a book scene and playing piano in the pit gave evidence to the quicksilver adaptability which would mark Trinkley’s later collaborations. In California he also attended the North Hollywood High School summer program in musical theatre, singing in and becoming acquainted with important stage works including The Mikado, Oklahoma, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, and, perhaps most influentially, Kurt Weill’s folk opera Down in the Valley.

Trinkley matriculated at Columbia University where he studied with Vladimir Ussachevsky (1911-1990), Otto Luening (1900-1996), Jack Beeson (1921-2010), and Charles Wuorinen (1938-2020). As an undergraduate at Columbia, Trinkley was the accompanist for Bailey “Oats” Harvey, director of the Columbia University Glee Club.  In his junior year in college, the Columbia Players held a competition to select a composer for the annual Varsity Show. Trinkley set two song lyrics “on spec” from the script that Michael Feingold had written (the same Michael Feingold who would become the chief drama critic of the Village Voice). Trinkley won the position as composer of the show, The Bawd’s Opera, which would go on to win that year’s BMI Prize as the Best College Musical of the Year (1966).  Besides a cash prize, the award included membership in BMI’s Musical Theatre Workshop headed by legendary Broadway conductor Lehman Engel (1910-1982). 

Trinkley’s continued collaborations with Feingold included  The Pill,  the very first rock musical, opening six months before Hair. A second Varsity Show, Feathertop, with book and lyrics by John Litvack soon followed.

As a result of these musical triumphs, and because he continued his singing and accompanying career with the Columbia Glee Club, Trinkley was selected by Oats Harvey to serve as his assistant –  resulting in a four year apprenticeship for the novice conductor.  He learned not only choral conducting technique and deep knowledge of the repertory but also people skills, learning how to communicate with and gain the trust of singers and performers

In his journeyman years after college Trinkley gained experience in music theatre, doing shows all over New York City and Long Island and working four summers at Green Mansions Summer Theatre in the Adirondacks as music director, adapter and composer/jack-of-all-trades under the mentorship of renowned theatre director Richard Edelman, finally working as producer for three summers. He accompanied singers, conducted the musicals, and produced the evening shows - revues, solo acts, chamber operas with nightly performances in the Lounge or the Theatre.

These varied experiences in many aspects of music-making led to his academic appointment at Penn State where he was hired to teach composition, conducting, opera literature and orchestration. He also conducted the Penn State Glee Club for 35 years, and was music director for Penn State's Centre Stage from 1970 until 1995, conducting the full-scale summer musicals. (Penn State then had one of the nation’s finest regional musical theatre programs.) This summer theatre work culminated in a series of collaborations with the legendary stage director, Garland Wright (1946-1998), who went on to become the artistic director of the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. 

Those twenty-five years of conducting musicals served Trinkley as his “years in the galley” (as Verdi would say) during which he would learn the intricacies and potential pitfalls of live musical theatre. The experience inculcated a professional pragmatism to Trinkley’s musical philosophy: do what needs to be done to serve the work and to create a successful performance. 

On top of his academic assignments  Trinkley continued to compose, teaming with choreographer Patricia Heigel-Tanner to produce a dance drama based on The War Prayer by Mark Twain with a strong pacifist message.  Trinkley’s first national fame came as the composer of The Bicentennial Wagon Train Show, produced by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and performed across the United States in 1976 to celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday.  The show brought together Trinkley’s talents as a composer, music director, and producer.  

In 1993-1994 Trinkley was granted a sabbatical – his first – after 23 years of non-stop teaching, to work on a small piece to celebrate the 100 years since the founding of State College, PA, the home of Penn State.  That small piece would grow into a monumental work: Mountain Laurels: A Choral Symphony. (See the Mountain Laurels page on this website.) But the immediate results of the sabbatical leave, were two pieces that began his long association with poet-librettist Jason Charnesky. Santa Rosalia: A Cantata Based on the Painting by Fernando Botero celebrated the opening of the Palmer Art Museum and was filmed for PBS. Songs for the End of the Recital was composed for the Carnegie Recital Hall debut of mezzo-soprano Jan Wilson, a first NYC premiere since the musicals up on Broadway at Columbia!  And both pieces led to further forays into the cantata form as well as a string of solo songs and song cycles.

The success of these works resulted in a commission from Susan Boardman to write an opera for the Penn State Opera Workshop – specifically for young singers and for a company with limited physical and financial resources. This would become a genre that Charnesky and Trinkley excelled at. The resulting one act opera, Eve’s Odds was produced to acclaim, and went on to win another seminal prize: the Chamber Opera Competition of the National Opera Association.

Two additional commissions dealt with themes of world population and ecology: Diamond Child, a musical based on the UN’s Day of Six Billion in 1999, and One Life: The Rachel Carson Project, a multimedia work in the form of a cantata for women’s voices about the life and writings of the founder of the ecology movement in America.  

During his career he has had composer residencies at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, the Hambidge Center, the Ucross Foundation, the Patrick Allan-Fraser Trust in Scotland, and Fundación Valparaìso in Mojacar, Spain. His works are published by Alliance, Alfred Music, Oxford University Press, Augsburg Fortress, Lawson-Gould, GIA, Hinshaw, Hal Leonard and Yelton Rhodes.

Trinkley retired from academe in 2005 and has since devoted himself to full-time composing.  He has been able to attend performances of his works in Brazil, Colombia, Canada, Germany, Ukraine and throughout the United States. He spends summers in Paris and winters in New York, attending concerts, operas, and musicals. All in all, not a bad life.

He continues to compose and arrange. And now he is pleased to share his Words and Music with fellow musicians – singers, choirs, and conductors – through this website.  

Let the last word of this biographical synopsis be given to a couple of fellow artists who have had extensive experience performing and interpreting the works of Bruce Trinkley:

“Bruce Trinkley is an elegant composer. He understands the human voice, both in solo singing and in choral singing, and enjoys good text, so that the splendid words of his pieces, written by Jason Charnesky, are clearly protrayed in his music. His melodies are compelling and memorable, but not simple. His rhythms are always fascinating. My students loved his music.” Susan Boardman, singer and stage director 

Mountain Laurels brought the entire community together for two nights of poetry, music, and song, and it has become legendary here as a high point of the town’s centennial year. . . . His piano trio, Cold Mountain, was so well received that it was broadcast across the nation on China’s prime time arts program.” Kim Cook, cellist

Bruce Trinkley at Columbia Reminiscences from 1962-1970 for Columbia College Today

Bruce Trinkley at Penn State