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John Lessard (1920-2003) was an American composer and music educator noted among peers for his eloquent and dramatic neo-classical works for piano and voice, chamber ensembles, and orchestra, as well as for his playful pieces for mixed percussion ensembles. He was also an accomplished pianist and conductor. Born John Ayres Lessard in San Francisco on July 3, 1920, he was raised in Palo Alto by parents with Quebec roots, quickly becoming fluent in both French and English. He began piano lessons at the age of five, then trumpet lessons at nine, and two years later joined the San Francisco Civic Symphony Orchestra. He studied piano and theory with Elise Belenky and also worked briefly with the composer Henry Cowell.
At sixteen, he was offered a scholarship to study with Arnold Schoenberg, but felt so repelled by his music and the Vienna School outlook that he refused the scholarship and went to study in France. From 1937 to 1940 he was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, Georges Dandelot, Alfred Cortot and Ernst Levy at the École Normale de Musique in Paris, earning a diploma in “Harmonie, Contrepointe et Fugue.” When Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940, he fled to the U.S. along with Boulanger, where he continued his studies with her at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gaining another diploma. However, he was soon drafted into the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Lessard received two Guggenheim fellowships (1946, 1953) as well as awards from the Alice M. Ditson Fund (1946) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1952). He was also given the title of Professor Emeritus of Music at SUNY Stony Brook.