Paul Cooper, composer and teacher of music, was born Kenneth Paul Cooper on May 19, 1926, in Victoria Township, Knox County, Illinois. He was the son of Charles and Jessie Cooper. He attended public school in Galesburg, Illinois, and Belmont High School in Los Angeles, graduating in 1944.
He served in the United States Army in two wars. During World War II he served at Fort Benning from 1944 to 1946, initially as an enlisted clerk-typist and then as a lieutenant instructor at the Infantry School. During the Korean War from 1950 to 1952 Cooper initially served as an instructor at Fort Ord and then as an infantry company officer in the Thirty-fifth Infantry Regiment, Twenty-fifth Division in Korea. He was diagnosed with malaria in 1952 and was hospitalized at Wadsworth Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles.
Between these military assignments, he was a student at the University of Southern California (1947–50) and majored in music theory and composition. After graduating magna cum laude, he pursued graduate study in music composition and comparative literature at the University of Southern California in 1952 and 1953. His master’s thesis was “The Influence of Nadia Boulanger on Contemporary American Creative Music.” The subsequent year (1953–54) he was a Fulbright Fellow at the Conservatoire Nationale in Paris and studied with Nadia Boulanger. He also studied at the Sorbonne. Further graduate study in composition and comparative literature at the University of Southern California led to his doctoral degree in August 1956. His dissertation equivalent was his Symphony No. 2.
Cooper served on the faculty at the University of Michigan School of Music from 1955 to 1968, then at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music from 1968 to 1974, and finally as a founding member of the Rice University Shepherd School of Music from 1974 to 1996. He held the Lynette S. Autrey Endowed Chair and was the Composer-in-Residence at the Shepherd School.
In addition to the Fulbright Fellowship in 1953, Cooper received other prestigious awards and grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1965), a National Endowment for the Arts award (1979), and twenty-five consecutive annual awards from the American Society of Composers and Performers (ASCAP).
He produced six symphonies, six concertos, six string quartets, several oratorios, and many instrumental and vocal chamber compositions. Commercial recordings included: three symphonies—No. 3, No. 4, No. 5; Concerto for Flute and Orchestra; Violin Concerto No. 2; Jubilate—a symphonic work for woodwinds, brass, and percussion; two string quartets—No. 5 and No. 6; Sonata for Flutes and Piano; Canons d’Amore for violin and viola; Four Impromptus for saxophone and piano; Verses for violin and viola; and Elegies for cello and piano. The music, although framed in classical forms, developed new ways of expression to provide a fresh sound. It was characterized by transparent textures with an emphasis on orchestral color. Cooper was influenced by the French style (e.g., chromatic, although always based in tonality) of Nadia Boulanger and the constructionalist style (e.g., the development of larger structures out of very short, simple musical motifs) of Joseph Haydn.
He was well-known as a teacher of music theory and wrote Perspectives in Music Theory: An Historical-Analytical Approach in 1973, which long served as a basis for the curriculum at the Shepherd School and other music institutions.
In 1953 he married Christiane (“Christa”) Ebert (1940–1989). She was a poet, and many of Paul Cooper’s vocal compositions represent collaborations. They had two children. Paul Cooper died on April 4, 1996, in Houston.