Elaine Lebenbom

Detroit musician/composer fought discrimination to rise to international prominence

Date of Birth: 1933

Date of Death: 2002

Place of Birth: Detroit

According to her sister, Barbara Friedman Klarman, Elaine knew from an early age that music would be her career. The Friedman sisters shared a room in their family home on Calvert Street in Detroit, and Elaine read constantly about music and composers. After experiencing anti-Semitism in 1939-40, the family moved to a different neighborhood, where Elaine studied composition at Central High School.

She continued her studies at the University of Michigan, receiving a Bachelor of Music in composition in 1955. She worked at Grinnell’s Music Store after college to make ends meet. She also taught piano to many students around the Sherwood Forest neighborhood in Detroit where she and her husband, David Lebenbom, lived early in their marriage, and later, to students in the suburban Bloomfield area, where they raised four children.

Because of her religion and her gender, Elaine faced both subtle and blatant discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s. She often spoke of the roadblocks she faced because she was a woman, including a father who discouraged her and the competition prizes she won that were rescinded after organizers discovered she was a woman.

In the 1980s, when she returned to the University of Michigan as a graduate student, the discrimination continued. The premium electronic studios were reserved for men while women struggled with outmoded technology.

Elaine persevered and wrote music that came to be praised for its creativity and expression. Jewish music and traditions were an important part of her work. She wrote several pieces on Jewish themes, including “Gamatria,” based on Chasidic numerology, and a cycle of songs based on Yiddish and Sephardic tunes. She also lectured widely on ancient Jewish music. Elaine and David were active in the Detroit Jewish community through the Jewish Community Council and Temple Beth El.

In 1997, Elaine was commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to write a piece, “Kaleidoscope Turning,” which inspired former DSO Music Director Neeme Jarvi to develop an annual prize honoring female composers. Established in 2006, the Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for Female Composers is granted annually to a living woman composer, of any age or nationality, in the spirit of recognizing and supporting the creation of new orchestral works by women. It remains the only annual symphony-sponsored award in the world exclusively for female composers.

Elaine Lebenbom received numerous grants and awards during her lifetime, and her original compositions were performed by the Warren Symphony Orchestra, the Michigan Orchestra, the Grosse Pointe Chamber Music Group, the Virtuoso Singers of New York, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, among many others.