Born in New York City (November 18, 1925), William Mayer entered Yale University with the notion of being a writer and graduated (1949) with equal affinities for music and language. A tilt toward music became evident as Mayer continued his training at Juilliard and the Mannes College of Music, studying with Roger Sessions and Felix Salzer, and later with Otto Luening and Izler Solomon.
His many awards and honors include two NEA grants, a citation from the National Institute for Music Theatre for contributing to "the advancement of American musical theatre"his Agee-based opera A Death in the Family was named the best new work of its type for 1983and both Guggenheim and MacDowell Fellowships, as well as grants from the Ford Foundation and the New York and Michigan State Arts Councils. His versatility is manifest in his ongoing interest in all kinds of music (including music for children and show music), his administrative abilitieshe has been particularly active at Composers Records Inc., having served as Chairman of the Boardand his not infrequent contributions as a writer. Varying assignments for the U.S. Information Agency attest to Mayer's versatility: writing a piano work (Abandoned Bells) for its Artistic Ambassador Series; interviewing Rostropovich; organizing a lecture series on American opera for overseas use; and serving as moderator at the auspicious first meeting between composers Aaron Copland and Aram Khatchaturian.
The breadth of Mayer's musical and human perceptions has been one of his distinguishing characteristics. Thus, John Vinton, in his Dictionary of Contemporary Music, cites Mayer's principal influences as Bartók, Stravinsky, Barber, and show music, especially the songs of Jerome Kern, an attribution echoed in AmeriGrove which adds that "his style is characterized by a contrasting of transparent textures with humorous, highly rhythmic and densely scored passages."
Among Mayer's most successful children's works are Hello, World! (a musical trip around the globe that has had innumerable performances, broadcasts, and a recording with Eleanor Roosevelt narrating), the ballet The Snow Queen, and the opera One Christmas Long Ago. His output includes orchestra, chamber, choral, and vocal compositions that have been performed and recorded by such renowned artists as Leopold Stokowski, Dawn Upshaw, Gerald Schwarz, Lukas Foss and others.
No work, however, has had a greater impact than A Death in the Family, premiered by the Minnesota Opera in 1983, produced in 1986 by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and recorded (Albany Records) in the production by the Manhattan School of Music.
Mayer lives in New York with his wife, the artist Meredith Nevins Mayer. Their three children, concert pianist Steven and two journalist daughters, Jane and Cynthia, have earned recognition and esteem in their respective professions.