Allen Forte, a former music theory professor at Yale and an internationally renowned leader in the field, died in his Connecticut home on Thursday morning. He was 87.
Forte was the Battell Professor of the Theory of Music and a specialist in 20th-century atonal music, music analysis by Schenkerian methods and the American popular ballad. He began teaching at the Yale School of Music in 1959, and his 12 scholarly books and roughly 100 articles received wide acclaim. Colleagues and students alike remember Forte as a pioneer in his field and a remarkable educator.
“Allen was arguably the single person most responsible for the development of music theory in the U.S. as a scholarly, as well as a pedagogical discipline,” said Patrick McCreless, a professor of music theory in the music department.
Forte was born Dec. 23, 1926 in Portland. After serving in the Pacific with the American Navy during World War II, Forte returned to the United States, where he received his Masters and Ph.D. from Columbia University with the aid of the GI Bill. Before assuming tenure at Yale, Forte taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
Daniel Harrison, the Allen Forte Professor of Music Theory in the department of Music, said that Forte’s work, “The Structure of Atonal Music,” remains one of the most important texts in music theory today and draws greatly upon his use of computer-aided research techniques.
“He achieved his stature and influence…by writing brilliant and original scholarship (mostly in the areas of post-tonal theory, tonal theory and American popular song) [and]by creating and fostering institutions that sustain the field,” said Joseph Straus MUS ’81, a professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. “He was a founder and editor of the Journal of Music Theory, still published at Yale, and a founder and the first president of the Society for Music Theory.”
During his 45 years at Yale, Forte served as primary adviser for over 70 doctorates. Harrison said that with fellow professor Claude V. Palisca, Forte was instrumental in promoting a novel approach to the music theory Ph.D., one that emphasized teaching and a broad basis in both contemporary and historical repertories.
“When, as a student, I knew him in the early 1980s, he was a formal and commanding presence, with a very dry sense of humor,” Harrison added. “Most of all, he was extraordinarily generous with time for students outside of class, in office hours, optional sections and even a weekly lunch at Commons.”
Despite Forte’s retirement in 2004, his legacy continues to inspire students still studying music theory.
Tahirih Motazedian GRD ’17 said that Forte’s work has had a major influence on the modern music theory profession.
“I do not think I exaggerate when I speak for the field in saying that Allen Forte is a legend — an inspirational force — for us,” said Stefanie Acevedo GRD ’18. “He was one of the first theorists that I embraced in my early studies, and his work inspired me to become a music theorist.”
Forte is survived by his wife, Madeleine Forte, her sons and her grandchildren.
Correction: Oct. 20
A previous version of this article identified Patrick McCreless as a professor at the music school. In fact, he teaches in the music department. Further, the article mistakenly identified two students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences as students at the School of Music.