Willard Somers Elliot, composer and performer, was born on July 18, 1926, in Fort Worth, Texas. Early on Elliot listened to his parents’ opera recordings. Later he began with piano lessons, picked up the clarinet, and at fourteen settled on the bassoon as his major instrument. While studying at North Texas State Teachers College (now University of North Texas) in Denton (B.M.), he was heard banging away at Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on piano. After graduation, he entered the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where his composition professor was Bernard Rogers. At age nineteen he received the M.A. and joined the Houston Symphony in 1946 as bassoonist and remained with the orchestra until 1949. He won the National Federation of Music Clubs Contest in Composition in 1947. Between 1951 and 1964, he held the principal bassoon chair in the Dallas Symphony, and in 1964 he became a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, also serving as principal bassoonist, until his retirement on January 1, 1997. During his tenure with the world-renowned Chicago Symphony, Elliot was considered by his colleagues to be the “easiest man in the world to work with.” For three decades his dependability earned him the epithet of a “Rock of Gibraltar.”
Elliot appears on many Chicago Symphony recordings, including The Chicago Principal: First Chair Soloists Play Famous Concertos, on which the bassoonist performs the Mozart Bassoon Concerto in B flat Major, K. 191, conducted by Claudio Abbado. He also performed on a recording of Bach’s Mass in B minor, with Sir George Solti conducting, which won a Grammy in 1992. Over the course of his career with the Chicago Symphony, Elliot worked under a number of other conductors, among them Seiji Ozawa and Morton Gould. In addition, he can also be heard on many Chicago Pro Musica recordings of chamber works. As a member of Chicago Pro Musica, Elliot received a Grammy in 1986 for Best New Classical Artist.
As a composer, Elliot produced a variety of works that were widely performed, and in 1961 he won a Koussevitzky Foundation Award for his Elegy for Orchestra, which was performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Many of his compositions were premiered by the Chicago Symphony, including his The Snake Charmer for alto flute and orchestra, which was described as an “intriguing little piece” with “gentle, hazy sonorities reminiscent of Debussy” and “deftly evok[ing] the languor of a famous painting of Rousseau.” In 1978 this work won the National Flute Association Newly Published Music Competition. His Fantasy for piccolo and piano of 1952 has often been performed and has been characterized as “substantial” and “sophisticated.” Other works include his Hypnos and Psyche, Quetzalcoatl, and Poem—the last of these for string quartet and bassoon. In 1986 Elliot and his wife formed Bruyere Music Publishers to publish his own compositions and arrangements.
During Elliot’s years with the Chicago Symphony, he was on the faculty at Northwestern and DePaul universities. Following his retirement from the CSO in 1997, he returned to Fort Worth and taught at Texas Christian University and also offered master classes around the country. In addition to his musical interests, he was an avid collector of fossils, a hobby he began at the age of ten, and at the time of his death, he had amassed a garage full of museum-quality specimens. He died of heart failure on June 7, 2000, in Fort Worth. He was survived by Pat, his wife of twenty-three years, and their two sons, Joseph and Peter.