Meet the Williamson County Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence
It all started during the Great Depression with a flutophone. Six-year-old M. L. Daniels in Cleburne, Texas, really wanted that recorder-like instrument, advertised for ten cents and a Wheaties box top. It finally arrived from New York with an instruction book, and the boy learned to play every song.
Even without this special instrument, however, the youngster had music in his bloodline. His grandparents and great-grandparents had formed the Daniels Band decades earlier. His father sang in a semi-professional quartet and taught his son vocal basics. The young Daniels decided in fifth grade that he wanted to be in band in junior high; trumpet lessons followed and then, naturally, acceptance into band.
When he entered Abilene Christian University in 1948, Daniels knew that music was his professional calling. The Korean War interrupted his undergraduate years, so he served in an Air Force band in San Angelo. A sergeant sent him and other band members to play for some hospitalized airmen, and Daniels asked innocently, “What should we play?” The reply? “There’s no music, so just make something up.” He did—and decided that was fun.
Daniels resumed studies at ACU in 1954–55, the school’s fiftieth anniversary, and he was pleased to hear his composition “Golden Year March” played at homecoming. After graduation, he spent several busy years in northeast Texas as a high school band director, often creating pieces to suit the talents of his band. In 1959, ACU offered him a position on the music faculty, where he continued to inspire students in music theory, orchestration, analysis, and composition during his 34-year tenure. Dr. Daniels completed his doctorate in 1964 at the University of North Texas (UNT), chaired ACU’s music department for 15 years, and took early retirement in 1993 to focus on composing.
His first published composition was an a cappella choral piece submitted by ACU’s choir director without Dr. Daniels’ knowledge, decades ago. He was definitely surprised when a publisher called, asking him to sign a contract! That piece, however, was the impetus for numerous vocal works that incorporate contemporary harmonic techniques that Dr. Daniels learned at UNT.
His direction in composition changed because of a National School Orchestra Association (NSOA) contest that offered a $1,000 prize. At that time, relatively few schools had orchestras, and students mostly struggled along, playing Beethoven and Mozart. NSOA wanted fresh material, and Dr. Daniels’ piece shared top honors with a work by another composer. He went on to win five NSOA competitions over the years, but his second NSOA entry, Festique, proved especially popular for sight-reading competitions. Even though Dr. Daniels claims it as one of his favorite works, he says wryly, “I didn’t receive any royalties for that work until 50 years later because NSOA demanded the rights to those royalties.”
Another change is his embrace of technological whiz-bang: He loves the streamlining of keyboard, computer, and sound synthesis, versus older compositional techniques of pen-paper-playback. He favors the French horn, but his compositions, mostly semi-classical, run the instrumental gamut: full orchestra, string orchestra or quartet, brass ensemble, wind, and even piano. Dr. Daniels often incorporates the unexpected—jazzy rhythm in “Swayfaring Stranger” and humor in “Santa Falls from the Housetop.”
Most recently, he won the Texas Orchestra Directors Association prize for the third time. More than 100 compositions bear his name (he’s stopped counting), and 17 of his works made the Texas UIL Prescribed Music List. Sometimes M. L. Daniels and his wife, Elaine, might be singing to small groups; other times, he might be wielding a well-directed golf club instead of a baton. But his music? It’s always there.
Hear Dr. Daniels’ work in Georgetown on March 12th, when the Williamson County Symphony Orchestra performs at Klett Performing Arts Center, or on Youtube.
Did you know?
When Dr. Daniels first introduced himself as a composer to the Wilco Symphony conductor several years ago, no one contacted Dr. Daniels afterward. At a later concert, the symphony played one of Dr. Daniels’ pieces. This time, following a second conversation, the conductor realized who M. L. Daniels was and was definitely interested!