Britain, Radie (1899–1994)

By: Larry Wolz

Type: Biography

Published: November 27, 2006

Updated: September 20, 2017

Radie Britain, one of the most successful Texas-born composers of symphonic music in the twentieth century, was born near Silverton, Texas, on March 17, 1899, the daughter of Edgar Charles and Katie (Ford) Britain. By 1905 the family had moved to a ranch near Clarendon, and Radie studied piano at Clarendon College. Even though the family later moved to Amarillo, Radie remained in Clarendon to finish high school and the music curriculum offered there. After high school she studied one year at Crescent College near Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Her early studies were with European-trained teachers who recognized her superior talents and predicted success for her in the music world. In the fall of 1919 she enrolled at the American Conservatory in Chicago, where she studied piano with Heniot Levy. She completed her B.M. degree in 1921. She then spent a year (1921–22) as music teacher at Clarendon College and set up her own teaching studio in Amarillo (1922–23), saving as much money as possible for a trip to Europe for further study. During the summer of 1922 she studied in Dallas with the organist Pietro Yon.

Britain made her first trip to Europe during the summer of 1923. She settled in Paris, where she studied organ with Marcel Dupré. After another year teaching privately in Amarillo, she set her sights on Germany. She moved to Berlin and studied piano with Adele aus der Ohre (1924), but soon moved to Munich to study with Albert Noelte (1924–26), who encouraged her to pursue composition seriously. She had her first compositions published there and made a successful debut as a composer in May 1926. The death of her younger sister in Amarillo forced Britain to return to the U.S., but she continued studying with Noelte in Chicago (1926–27), where he had moved. Britain herself moved to Chicago permanently to teach with Noelte at Girvin Institute of Music and Allied Arts.

During these years she began to compose orchestral works, the genre that produced her greatest successes. Her training as an organist gave her insights as an orchestrator, and she began to produce a long series of programmatic orchestral works in the tradition of German post-romanticism. Her Heroic Poem (1929) was inspired by Charles Lindbergh's flight and won the Juilliard National Publication Prize in 1930. With the help of her mentor Noelte and encouragement from the Federal Music Project, her works were played by symphony orchestras all over the country during the next decade.

Her first husband, Leslie Edward Moeller, was a Chicago businessman with little interest in his wife's career. They married in June 1930, and Britain's only child, Lerae, was born in 1932. An older woman composer, Amy Beach, made it possible for Britain to spend the summers of 1935 and 1936 at the famed MacDowell Colony. During the 1930s Britain fell in love with the Italian sculptor Edgardo Simone (1889–1949). After divorcing her first husband in 1939 she moved to California and married Simone in 1940. After Simone's death Britain married Theodore Morton, an aviation pioneer, in 1959. Morton died in 1993.

In 1941 Britain settled in Hollywood, where she taught piano and composition and continued a distinguished career as a composer. She is undoubtedly the most honored Texas composer in history. More than fifty of her works received international or national awards. She was given an honorary doctorate by the Musical Arts Conservatory in Amarillo in 1958. Throughout her career she maintained a connection to her native Southwest. One of her first published piano pieces in Munich was Western Suite (1925), and she returned to her roots many times for inspiration and titles. Among her orchestral works are Southern Symphony (1935), Drouth (1939), Paint Horse and Saddle (1947), Cowboy Rhapsody (1956), and Texas (1987). Similar titles can be found in her piano, vocal, and chamber music works.

For decades Radie Britain was associated with the National League of American Pen Women. She wrote numerous articles in magazines and journals. In 1959 she wrote an unpublished autobiographical novel, Bravo, based on her relationship with Edgardo Simone. Her other published writings include Major and Minor Moods (1970), a collection of autobiographical and inspirational short stories; Composer's Corner (1978), a collection of her articles from National Pen Women Magazine; and Ridin' Herd to Writing Symphonies: an Autobiography (1996), a fascinating memoir published posthumously. Britain died on May 23, 1994, in Palm Desert, California.

Collections of Radie Britain's music, published and manuscript, are housed in several locations: the Amarillo Public Library; the American Music Center in New York; the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in Philadelphia; the Moldenhauer Collection at Harvard University; the Texas Composers Collection at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin; and the Radie Britain Collection in the UCLA Music Library's Archival Collection. The composer's original music scores, manuscripts, and tapes are at the Indiana University School of Music. The Radie Britain Papers (scrapbooks, letters, programs, notes, newspaper articles, citations, and photos) are housed at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

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Christine Ammer, Unsung: A History of Women in American Music (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980; 2d ed., Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 2001). Walter B. and Nancy Gisbrecht Bailey, Radie Britain: A Bio-Bibliography (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990). Radie Britain, Ridin' Herd to Writing Symphonies: An Autobiography (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1996). Jane Weiner LePage, Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century: Selected Biographies (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1980). Stanley Sadie, ed., New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Washington: Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 1980; 2d ed., New York: Grove, 2001).

  • Music
  • Genres (Classical)
  • Women

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

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November 27, 2006
September 20, 2017

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