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Donald Keats was born in New York in 1929. At about the age of eight he began his musical studies (piano, theory) at the preparatory division of the Manhattan School of Music, and then was a student at the High School of Music and Art. Upon graduation, he went to the Yale School of Music, majoring in composition. At the age of nineteen he became a Teaching Fellow at Yale, and received his Mus. B. from Yale in 1949. While there, he won the Frances E. Osborne Kellogg Prize (theory) and the John Day Jackson Prize (composition). Among his teachers at Yale were Quincy Porter and Paul Hindemith.
He then entered the Masters program in composition at Columbia University; the composer who taught the Masters Seminar was Otto Luening. Keats wrote his Masters composition primarily under the guidance of Henry Cowell; it won Honorable Mention in the Bearns Prize competition. Other composers he worked with at Columbia were Douglas Moore, Jack Beeson, and Jacob Avsholomov. He received his M.A. in 1951.
He then voluntarily gave up his student deferment and was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. He found himself (weighing 122 pounds) taking Infantry Basic Training (speciality: heavy weapons), and a few months later got his orders to go to Korea. However these orders were deleted a day before his scheduled departure; instead he became the only man then in the Army to be an Instructor of Music Theory at the U.S. Naval School of Music in Washington, D.C.
At the end of his Army tour of duty (1954) he was awarded a Fulbright grant and went off to Germany, where he studied at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg; he was the only student of the Director of the school, the esteemed composer Philipp Jarnach. In the spring, his Fulbright grant was renewed for a second year. Among his works composed while in Germany are his Theme and Variations for Piano and his Symphony No. 1. His setting of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men," for chorus, clarinet, three trombones, and piano was performed in Hamburg, and his First String Quartet was performed in a Munich broadcast over the Bavarian Radio Network.
Soon after his return to America, Keats was appointed Assistant Professor at Antioch College (Yellow Springs, Ohio). He stayed there for eighteen years, rising to full professor. Two of those years (1964-65 and 1972-73) were spent in Europe as a Guggenheim Fellow, one year was spent as a Visiting Professor at the University of Washington (Seattle), and another year was spent as Visiting Professor at the University of Denver . He also got his Ph.D. (in composition, studying with Paul Fetler and Dominick Argento) at the University of Minnesota, with the help of grants (via Antioch College) from the Danforth and Lilly foundations, and also with help from the V.A. (“G.I. Bill”). Other awards have come from the National Endowment for the Arts, from ASCAP, and from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations.
In 1975 he received a one-year appointment as Visiting Professor at the Lamont School of Music of the University of Denver, which lasted twenty-four years, until his retirement in 1999. At DU, he held, for a while, an endowed Chair, the Lawrence C. Phipps Chair in the Humanities. He also was named the 1991 Distinguished Faculty Artist by the Lamont School of Music of the University of Denver. For fifteen years he taught, summers, a Contemporary Music Seminar at Aspen , in conjunction with the Aspen School of Music and Festival. For one summer he was also a Visiting Composer at the Aspen Music Festival; he was also Composer-in-Residence at the Colorado Music Festival (Boulder) and at Arcosanti (Paolo Soleri’s futuristic city-in-progress in Arizona).
Keats’ compositional output includes four symphonic works, three string quartets, two solo piano pieces (a piano sonata and a theme and variations), a piano concerto, a ballet (performed in New York under the auspices of Joseph Papp), various chamber music pieces, two song cycles, and other songs and choral music. His Elegiac Symphony won three competitions, resulting in performances by