Lee Hoiby was born in Wisconsin in 1926 of Scandinavian extraction. Important European musicians in flight from Hitler forgathered at the remarkable war-time music department of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At Madison, Hoiby’s prodigious pianistic gift was nurtured by Gunnar Johansen, the Danish virtuoso who privately recorded the complete keyboard works of Bach, Liszt and Busoni. Johansen passed Hoiby on to his own pianistic mentor, the Busoni acolyte Egon Petri, with whom he studied at Cornell and Mills College. On the verge of a career as a concert pianist Hoiby was offered, on the basis of a few works written for fun and submitted without his knowledge, a full scholarship to study composition with Gian Carlo Menotti at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Hoiby was unable to refuse. Menotti led Hoiby to opera, presenting Hoiby's one-act The Scarf at the first Spoleto (Italy) Festival in 1957.
Hoiby's immense contribution to the song repertoire is recognized by American singers everywhere. His style is an elegant and unobvious bridging of the lyrical worlds of Verdi and Gershwin, which can be profoundly moving or smoothly good-humored, but skirts entirely the modernist obsession with “originality”. He turns frequently to texts of great literary and civic value. Hoiby has also made significant contributions to the piano repertory (in addition to his demanding song accompaniments), including two piano concertos and a volume of solo piano works published by G. Schirmer. His choral music is performed in churches throughout the USA and in Great Britain. Mr. Hoiby has been a recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Numerous concerts devoted exclusively to his music have taken place, most notably on the American Composer's Series at the Kennedy Center in 1990.