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William Francis McBeth (1933–2012)

William Francis McBeth was a world-renowned composer and conductor. He was the Trustees’ Distinguished University Professor and resident composer at Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) in Arkadelphia (Clark County), where he served as chairman of the Department of Music Theory and Composition. The governor appointed him composer laureate of Arkansas in 1975. McBeth’s compositions include works for all media, but was influential in the development of the literature for wind symphony.

Francis McBeth was born on March 9, 1933, in Ropesville, Texas, to Joseph Phinis McBeth, a Baptist minister, and Lillie May Carpenter McBeth. He spent his youth in western Texas, where he began his musical training at an early age, studying piano with his mother and taking up the trumpet in second grade. McBeth had one brother and one sister.

McBeth attended Hardin-Simmons University (HSU) in Abilene, Texas, where he received his bachelor’s of music in 1954. He received his master’s of music in 1957 from the University of Texas at Austin and was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from HSU in 1971. He also studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

While an undergraduate at HSU, McBeth played in the university band. From December 1952 to January 1953, the band traveled with U.S. Camp Shows to Europe. He served in the military from 1954 to 1956 with the 101st Airborne Band at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and the 98th Army Band at Fort Rucker, Alabama. McBeth married Mary Sue White in 1953. They had two children.

McBeth was appointed band director at Ouachita Baptist College (now Ouachita Baptist University) in 1957. He remained at OBU, retiring in 1996 as chairman of the theory and composition department, resident composer, and the Lena Shepperson Professor of Music. In 1975, he was named composer laureate of Arkansas, the first composer laureate in the United States.

McBeth conducted the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in Little Rock (Pulaski County) for many years before his retirement from the orchestra in 1973, at which time he was named Conductor Emeritus. During his tenure as conductor, McBeth transformed the ensemble into a professional orchestra with a permanent home, financial stability, and full-time professional players. In addition, McBeth conducted in forty-eight of the fifty states as well as Japan, Europe, and Australia.

Most of McBeth’s music and books were published by Southern Music Company of San Antonio, Texas. His publications include works for all media: piano, choral, chamber, orchestra, and band. Among his most frequently performed compositions are Symphony No. 3 (which was awarded the Howard Hanson Prize in 1963); Kaddish, Op. 57; Beowulf, Op. 71; Of Sailors and Whales, Op. 78; Through Countless Halls of Air, Op. 84; and Missa Brevis, Op. 82. His passion for wind symphony music influenced its literature, and compositions of younger composers show his influence. McBeth was widely recognized as a clinician and lecturer and wrote a great deal about his own music and that of his contemporaries. Many of his articles were published in leading music journals, and he published three books on music theory and orchestration: Effective Performance of Band Music (1972), New Theories of Theory (1979), and Twentieth Century Techniques of Composition for the Beginning Student (1994). All of his major compositions have been recorded and are commercially available.

McBeth died on January 6, 2012, from complications of a stroke.

For additional information:
The ASCAP Biographical Dictionary of Composers, Authors and Publishers. 4th ed. New York: American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, 1980.

Hanson, Aprille. “Composer’s Life Was Music, More.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 9, 2012, p. 2B.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, eds. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1986.

Preston, Keith Y. “William Francis McBeth (b. 1933): Composer, Conductor, and Music Educator.” DMA diss., Arizona State University, 2006.

Rehrig, William H. The Heritage Encyclopedia of Band Music: Composers and Their Music. Edited by Paul E. Bierley. Westerville, OH: Integrity Press, 1991.

“W. Francis McBeth.” Sigma Alpha Iota Philanthropies, Inc. http://www.sai-national.org/home/ComposersBureau/McBethWFrancis/tabid/360/Default.aspx (accessed February 26, 2013).  

George Keck
Ouachita Baptist University

Last Updated 9/5/2013

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