Dr. Francis McBeth

Composer Laureate of Arkansas, BM 1954

William Francis McBeth has contributed to the world of music, not only through his compositions and performances, but also through teaching generations of musicians. In his own words, “A great teacher teaches people, not just a course. All people are self-taught; the teacher is only a guide. You must only hope that your guide has a correct map.” McBeth indeed has the correct map.

McBeth was born at home in Ropesville, Texas, March 9, 1933. Entrenched in a musical family, he developed an early appreciation for music. Taught trumpet by his father, Dr. Joseph Phinis McBeth, who was a charter Cowboy Band member, young McBeth played in his church orchestra before he even started school. He credits his father as being the greatest teacher he had ever known. An early lesson he remembers was at the age of five, when his father bought him a small notebook and on the first page inscribed Francis’s name and then in large letters wrote, “Rules for Greatness.” Each week young Francis was asked to think of a rule, and his father would write it in the book. McBeth’s first rule was, “Don’t splash mud on friends.” As a young boy in West Texas, McBeth applied those important lessons learned from his father. He was always careful while delivering newspapers from his horse to avoid riding onto customer’s front lawns when it had rained.

During his high school years, McBeth’s family relocated to the Dallas area where he was inserted into a vibrant community of well-rounded musicians. This eclectic musical influence squelched his discomfort at being the only person he knew who liked both Jazz and Brahms. Also in high school, McBeth played football, was the Golden Gloves champion for West Texas, and, of course, participated in band, where he began arranging music.

After graduation, he came to Hardin-Simmons University, his father’s alma mater, playing under the baton of Cowboy Band Director Marion B. McClure and composing pieces for the band. McBeth later credited McClure’s friendship, encouragement, and love as his reason for beginning a career in composition.

McBeth lists his most memorable Cowboy Band performance as traveling with the Eisenhower for President Texas delegation to Madison Square Garden. After the performances, the band received a telegram stating, “when Eisenhower is nominated at least 50 percent of credit will belong to Texas delegation and Hardin-Simmons University Band…” He also performed with the Cowboy Band during its 1952-1953 USO tour. In 1954 McBeth received the Presley Medal, the highest honor awarded to a Cowboy Band member.

In 1953, he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Sue White. In 1959 they welcomed daughter Laura to the family, and son Matthew debuted in 1964. Shortly after graduation from HSU in 1955, McBeth entered military service where he played in the 101st Airborne Division Band and in the 98th Army Band. Continuing to compose while in the Army, he wrote Symphony No. 1, his longest piece up to that point at 45 minutes.

Upon discharge from the Army in 1956, McBeth enrolled at the University of Texas, were he expanded his repertoire, especially in orchestral music, and wrote Symphony No. 2. After McBeth finished his master’s work, he joined the faculty of the small music department at Ouachita Baptist College in 1957. After directing the Ouachita band for six years, he took a one-year leave of absence to pursue his doctorate at the Eastman School of Music. Upon his return, he became the chairman of the theory/composition department.

In 1960, Second Suite for Band became his first published work. However, Chant and Jubilo, published in 1961, was his clarion. After the wide appeal of Chant and Jubilo, people discovered Second Suite for Band and started asking for First Suite. At this point, McBeth admitted that there wasn’t a First Suite for Band. He had called his first work Second Suite because he didn’t want to look like a beginner. He later wrote First Suite for Orchestra. Chant and Jubilo became and remains one of the best selling band pieces in the world.

He was conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in Little Rock from 1968 until 1972, he was then elected conductor emeritus. Upon his retirement from Ouachita University in 1996, he was appointed trustees’ distinguished university professor.

Just a few of his many awards are the highly coveted Howard Hanson Prize, given by the Eastman School of Music in 1963 for his Third Symphony, the President’s Award for Creative Writing from Ouachita University every year from 1959 to 1969, the ASCAP Special Award each consecutive year from 1965 to the present, and the John Philip Sousa Foundation’s Sudler Medal of Honor in 1999. He received an honorary doctorate in music from Hardin-Simmons in 1971, and the Distinguished Alumni Award at HSU in 1996.

In 1975, McBeth was appointed Composer Laureate of the State of Arkansas by the governor—the first such appointment in the United States. He is a member of the American Bandmasters Association, National Band Association, Phi Beta Mu, Kappa Kappa Psi, Phi Mu Alpha, Tri-M Honorary Music Society, and contributing editor of the Instrumentalist Magazine and American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.

McBeth has consistently been in the top group of the most performed American symphonic and wind composers the past 40 years, and as a conductor and lecturer, he travels nine months of the year and has conducted in 48 of the 50 states, as well as Australia, Canada, Europe, and Japan.

His most memorable conducting experience was in 1998, after the U.S. Marine Corps Band commissioned a work from him for their 200th anniversary. He was one of only two non-military conductors for the performance at the Kennedy Center. At a pre-concert reception on the south lawn of the White House, former President Bill Clinton, whom he had known since Clinton’s youth in Arkansas, invited Francis, Mary, and their daughter Laura to spend the night at the White House. Concerned that this would impinge on the president’s time and hospitality, McBeth tried to graciously refuse. After a kick in the leg from Laura and the President’s assurance, “don’t worry, it’s a big house,” he accepted. McBeth was moved by the experience of sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom and laying his watch and billfold on the very table at which Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

McBeth often says a composer must have a general sketch of the entire piece before proceeding. One must know how a work is going to end before starting it. In the composition of his life, even McBeth, master composer and teacher, couldn’t have foreseen the great symphony in progress we have shared with you today. We are proud of W. Francis McBeth and look forward to the many movements yet to come.

It is the high honor of Hardin-Simmons University to recognize one of her own and to formally induct W. Francis McBeth into the HSU Hall of Leaders.