George Hufsmith: A Villa-Lobos Pupil

hufsmithGeorge Hufsmith is an American composer, born in 1924, who died in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 2002.  He is best known for his opera "The Sweetwater Lynching," commissioned by the state of Wyoming for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976.  What is less well known is that George Hufsmith was the one and only composition student of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

I am very pleased to present to the world's community of Villa-Lobos scholars and lovers a sneak preview of some exciting music-historical research now being undertaken by Eric Wenstrom of Idaho Falls, ID.  Eric's research will form the basis of his PhD. dissertation.  Eric is also involved, as conductor, in a recording of "The Sweetwater Lynching" with the Idaho Falls Opera Theater.

Here is a biographical note provided by Eric Wenstrom:

Although George William Hufsmith was born August 27, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska, his real family roots go back four generations to 1874, two years before George Armstrong Custer's Last Stand, when his forebearers, immigrants from Germany, emigrated to Wyoming and settled in Cheyenne.  Hufsmith's mother, Thelma, was a piano teacher and gave her son his first piano lessons at the age of four or five.  His studies progressed rapidly and his mother felt it appropriate to begin more advanced instruction.  His major interest, however was never in becoming a pianist and he found himself increasingly drawn to composition.  At approximately six years of age he wrote down his first composition entitled "Graveyard Prowling at Midnight" inspired by his shirt-tail forebearer,  Edgar Allen Poe.  
In 1938 the Hufsmith family moved to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil where Hufsmith became an admirer of the Brazillian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos,  After serving in the Signal Intelligence during the Second World War,  Hufsmith returned to Brazil where he met the composer who, after seeing Hufsmith's compositions, accepted him as his first, and subsequently only composition student.  Since Villa-Lobos and his wife had no children, they affectionately referred to the young Hufsmith as their "Musical Son".  Later, in search of a formal education in his own country,  Hufsmith was accepted to the Yale School of Music, where he studied with German composer, Paul Hindemith, as well as Quincy Porter and Richard Donovan.  He also studied with Norman Lockwood and the two became close lifetime friends.         

Hufsmith first came back to his Wyoming roots in 1951 and subsequently ranched with his father in South Park.  As a result of a serious cattle depression Hufsmith was obliged to give up ranching and entered the insurance business to earn a living.  In 1954 he was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives where he served for six years.  During this time he co-sponsored the bill that created the Wyoming Arts Council and was appointed by the Governor to the Council'sfirst Board of Directors.  In the fifties and sixties he was the director of St. John's Episcopal church choir and wrote many works especially for it, of which the mass "Body and Blood" was one, but it proved too demanding and was set aside for many years.  It 1989 Hufsmith entered "Body and Blood" into the Artcore competition for chamber music and for the second time he captured first prize.  The work was later expanded to include a piano or string quartet obbligato.    

In 1960 Hufsmith and the then conductor and musical director of the Casper Symphony Orchestra, Ernest Hagen, began efforts to initiate a long dream of Hufsmith's, to establish a summer music festival in Jackson Hole.  The two men initially secured the financial needs locally, and the very first five week festival with the symphony orchestra of 80 musicians from across the nation was launched.  It is now known as the Grand Teton Music Festival.         

Although his demanding activities in public service and professional life have made full time devotion to composition impossible,  Hufsmith has continued to compose and has a fine opus of works in nearly all musical forms.  As it's major contribution to the Bicentennial year of the United States of America,  Wyoming commissioned Hufsmith to compose Wyoming's first grand opera, "The Sweetwater Lynching", based on Wyoming's most tragic and notorius historical event, the 1892 violent abduction and lynching of two innocent homesteaders, a newly wed husband and wife, by six enourmously wealth and politically influential cattler barons.  Yellow journalism unjustly tagged the Ella as "Cattle Kate", confusing the newlywed wife with a notorious prostitute in a nearby town.  After 15 years of exhaustive historical research, Hufsmith completed a well documented book correcting the execrable fiction about the incident and exposes what turns out to be one of the West's most poignant tragedies.  The book entitled "The Lynching of Cattle Kate" was published in 1993 by High Plains Press.  Hufsmith in currently working on another volume about Wyoming history, the Johnson County Cattle War.  The opera was performed in November 1996, and June 1997 by the Idaho Falls Opera Theatre under the direction of Eric Wenstrom.         

The Grand Teton Music Festival honored Hufsmith in 1991 by presenting the world premiere of his "Festival Fanfare" commemorating the 30th anniversary of the festival and dedicated to the 25th year of Conductor Ling Tung's musical directorship.  It also performed his ballet "Parabola".  The suite from the ballet has several time been performed by symphony orchestras across the country.         

Eric Wenstrom is now (summer 1997) interviewing George Hufsmith.  Eric has been sending me excerpts from these interviews, and they make fascinating reading.  Here are the first ones:

Here is a post at The Villa-Lobos Magazine about Hufsmith's death in 2002.

Here's the complete bibliographic reference to George Hufsmith's book:

Hufsmith, George W. The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889. High Plains Press (Glendo, Wyoming), 1993. (buy from

The book won the 1993 Book Award, Wyoming Historical Society, and has received rave reviews. 

The material presented on this page is kindly provided by Eric Wenstrom.  It is used with the permission of Eric and of George Hufsmith.