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Willard Elliot in the early 1990s (Jim Steere photo)

For more than thirty years, Willard Elliot (1926-2000) was the foundation of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s wind section. A native of Fort Worth, Texas, he studied piano and clarinet before switching to the bassoon at the age of fourteen, even though he wanted to play the instrument much sooner. According to his widow, Patricia, “He was waiting until he was big enough to play the bassoon.” Elliot earned a bachelor’s degree from North Texas State University, and, at the age of nineteen, he completed a master’s degree in composition from the Eastman School of Music. He spent three years with the Houston Symphony and eleven years as principal bassoon with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, in addition to performing with the Fourth Army Band at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. In 1964, Elliot was hired by seventh music director Jean Martinon as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal bassoon.

As a composer, Elliot was co-winner of the 1961 Koussevitzky Foundation Award for his Elegy for Orchestra. Under Seiji Ozawa, he was soloist with the CSO in the world premiere of his Concerto for Bassoon, first performed at the Ravinia Festival on June 27, 1965; and Richard Graef was soloist in The Snake Charmer (Concerto for Alto Flute and Orchestra), first performed on Youth Concerts on January 7, 1976, under the baton of then–associate conductor Henry Mazer. Elliot also composed two symphonies; arrangements of works by Glinka, Granados, Grieg, Mozart, Ravel, Scriabin, and Weber; along with numerous chamber works for a variety of instrument combinations.

During his thirty-three-year tenure, Elliot performed as a soloist under Claudio Abbado, Lawrence Foster, Carlo Maria Giulini, Morton Gould, Antonio Janigro, Martinon, and Sir Georg Solti. On March 19, 1966, he was a soloist—along with his colleagues Clark Brody, Dale Clevenger, Jay Friedman, Adolph Herseth, Donald Koss, Donald Peck, and Ray Still—in recording sessions for Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra for RCA under Martinon’s baton. On February 4, 1984, Elliot recorded Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto with Abbado conducting for Deutsche Grammophon.


As an educator, Elliot taught at the University of North Texas and DePaul and Northwestern universities, and he also coached the Civic Orchestra of Chicago‘s bassoon section. Following his retirement from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1996, Elliot and his wife moved to Fort Worth to teach music at Texas Christian University and give master classes around the country. They also continued their work with Bruyere Music Publishers (founded in 1986), preparing his compositions and arrangements for publication.

“When I joined the CSO in 1992, Willard was nearing the end of a long performing career. I was very aware of being a different generation from Willard, but he was very collegial from the first time we worked together,” commented William Buchman, assistant principal bassoon. “He encouraged me to play with real gusto and engagement. It made me feel like my contributions to the Orchestra’s sound were important.”

“Willard Elliot was a fascinating man and wonderful musician,” according to John Bruce Yeh, assistant principal clarinet. He was “a true renaissance musician: arranger, composer, educator, as well as orchestral bassoonist par excellence.” Elliot and Yeh were both founding members of the Chicago Symphony Winds, and together they toured and recorded Elliot’s transcription of Grieg’s Four Lyric Pieces as well as Mozart’s Serenade in E-flat major, K. 375, both for the Sheffield Lab label.

Willard Elliot in 1970 (Zeloof-Stuart Photography)

“In 1979, I formed Chicago Pro Musica,” Yeh continued, and “Willard and I were pleased to explore a wide range of chamber music with our CSO colleagues and guests.” In 1983, the ensemble recorded Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale along with Elliot’s arrangement of Scriabin’s Waltz in A-flat major for their debut on Reference Recordings. “Willard loved the music of Scriabin and the composer’s exotic harmonies. Those of us in the CSO woodwind section to this day fondly remember some of the inspired little signature harmonic touches Willard would inject into standard repertoire, a small alteration that only those close by would be able to hear during a rehearsal, for example. He would always liven things up that way.” The ensemble won the 1985 Grammy Award for Best New Classical Artist.

“Willard was always an upbeat man with a smile on his face,” remembered Michael Henoch, assistant principal oboe. “He was, of course, a marvelous musician, a consummate master of the bassoon, but he had many other interests including geology, gardening, and researching his family’s genealogy. . . . He had a huge presence in the CSO woodwind section, and I was honored to perform with him. Over the years, I also played many chamber music concerts with him in the Chicago Symphony Chamber Players, Chicago Pro Musica, and the Chicago Chamber Musicians.  We played many of his own compositions and arrangements, all crafted with a high degree of professionalism.”

“I remember being aware that Willard was always so well-prepared and enthusiastic. He had played just about every piece at least once before, and he had a photographic memory of all of his previous performances,” added Buchman. “He also was remarkably organized with his reeds. He had a journal in which he kept notes about every reed he made and used, including what pieces he had used each reed for. . . . He adjusted well to retirement, though, and he kindly bestowed upon me a couple of large boxes of reed cane he had been storing for decades. I still have some of it today!”

Willard Elliot’s Two Sketches for Woodwind Quintet—performed by Jennifer Gunn, Michael Henoch, John Bruce Yeh, William Buchman, and Oto Carrillo—can be heard on CSO Sessions Episode 19, available on CSOtv from May 6 until June 4, 2021.

Elliot also can be heard as part of the continuo in the January 1990 London recording of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, under the baton of Sir Georg Solti and featured on the May 11, 2021, From the CSO’s Archives: The First 130 Years radio broadcast.

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