Faculty Bio

Michael Pisani

Professor of Music

Michael Pisani has been teaching at Vassar since 1997, and holds a Ph.D. in musicology from the Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester, New York). He teaches music of all periods and styles, but he is principally a scholar of the 19th and 20th centuries, especially dramatic musical forms such as program music, opera, musical theatre, and film music. He also writes about music’s unique role in the creation of national (and exotic) identities. His first book, Imagining Native America in Music (Yale University Press, 2005), examines musical representations of Native America from Columbus’s time to the present.  It received an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award in 2006.

His most recent book examines the rich tapestry of theatrical music in the 19th century, particularly music used to accompany dramatic plays in English-speaking countries.  Music for the Melodramatic Theatre (University of Iowa Press, 2014) is really a pre-history of film music, and the research for this book took some fifteen years and is an ongoing subject of great interest.  Professor Pisani has a chapter in The Oxford Handbook to Film Music (Oxford University Press, 2013) that demonstrates some of the clear precedents for film music in the way music was designed and used for the stage, and he will be contributing the chapter on music in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to English Melodrama.

He has also published articles on opera and film music, including an essay on “Teaching Film Music in the Liberal Arts Curriculum” first published in Teaching Music History, ed. Mary Natvig (Ashgate, 2002) and the other in Film Music II, published by the Film Music Society of Los Angeles (2004).  He is committed to the study and promotion of American Music, all 450-or-so years of it.  He has served on the boards of the Society for American Music and is currently the editor of the quarterly journal American Music.

Professor Pisani is also an accomplished pianist and worked for several major opera companies in the 1980s, among them, the Houston Grand Opera, the Seattle Opera Wagner Festival, and the Opera Company of Boston. In this capacity, he accompanied rehearsals for many famous opera singers and stage directors. He conducted performances of Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Handel’s Xerxes at the Skylight Opera in Milwaukee, both directed by Stephen Wadsworth.  He was also invited by Leonard Bernstein to prepare the casts for his opera A Quiet Place for the Kennedy Center in Washington and also in Italy and Vienna. In 1989 he went to Russia with Sarah Caldwell to arrange for performances of Bernstein’s opera in St. Petersburg and Moscow where he also worked with Karin Khatchaturian, then secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers, to assist in the organization of Miss Caldwell’s donation of American musical scores to the Union’s library. This was three months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Michael Pisani was born in Gary, Indiana and is grateful for the excellent drama and music program at his Catholic High School (Andrean).  He grew up playing the accordion (classical as well as ethnic musics) and went to Oberlin College, studying music composition and conducting.  Among one of his favorite and proudest musical memories is accompanying tenor Jon Vickers in a run-through of Verdi’s Otello at the Houston Grand Opera.  Another is playing a rehearsal of A Quiet Place in 1985 in a small room at La Scala, while Leonard Bernstein conducted and composer Luciano Berio turned pages!