Daron Hagen grew up in New Berlin, a suburb west of Milwaukee. Hagen was the youngest of the three sons of Gwen Hagen, a visual artist, writer and advertising executive who studied creative writing with Mari Sandoz and enjoyed a successful advertising career as creative director of Exclusively Yours Magazine and Earl Hagen (an attorney). Hagen began composing prolifically in 1974, when his older brother Kevin gave him a recording and score of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. Two years later, at the age of fifteen, he conducted the premiere of his first orchestral work, a recording and score of which came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who enthusiastically urged Hagen to attend Juilliard to study with David Diamond. He studied piano with Adam Klescewski, and studied composition, piano, and conducting at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music (where his teachers included Duane Dishaw and Judy Kramer) while attending Brookfield Central High School.
After two years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his teachers included Catherine Comet (conducting), Jeanette Ross (piano), and Leslie Thimmig and Homer Lambrecht (composition), he was invited to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia by Ned Rorem (with whom he developed a lifelong friendship). While a student of Rorem's at Curtis, he studied piano with Marion Zarsecsna and also studied privately with Lukas Foss. Hagen moved to New York City in 1984 to complete his formal education as a student at Juilliard, studying first for two years with Diamond, then for a semester each with Joseph Schwantner and Bernard Rands. After graduating, Hagen was a Tanglewood composition fellow before briefly living abroad, first at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and then at the Rockefeller Foundation's Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, where he has twice been a guest. Between 1984 and 1998 Hagen was also a frequent guest at the MacDowell Colony. When he returned to the United States, Hagen studied privately with Bernstein, whose guidance during the composition of Hagen's Shining Brow (1992) — the opera that launched Hagen's career internationally — prompted him to dedicate the score to Bernstein's memory.
Hagen served in 2007 as composer in residence at the Music Conservatory of the Chicago College of Performing Arts and joined the artist faculty there in 2017 "in a multi-disciplinary position created for him that enables him to share his skills as a stage director, dramaturge, composer, and social activist with students from throughout the Roosevelt University community as they shadow him and collaborate in the development of a new Hagen opera each year." He has served as the Franz Lehár Composer in Residence at the University of Pittsburgh (2007), twice as composer in residence for the Princeton University Atelier (1998, 2005); as artist in residence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (2000-2002); Sigma Chi-William P. Huffman Composer in Residence at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio (1999-2000); artist in residence at Baylor University, Waco, Texas (1998-1999); on the musical studies faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music (1996-1998); as an associate professor at Bard College (1988-1997); as a visiting professor at the City College of New York (1997, 1993-1994); and as a lecturer in music at New York University (1988-1990).
As artistic director of the Perpetuum Mobile Concerts (1982-87) he premiered compositions by over a hundred American composers on concerts produced in Philadelphia and New York. Hagen served as president of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation (2004-07) in New York City, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging the performance and creation of opera and art song; he is a trustee of the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera and was elected a lifetime member of the Corporation of Yaddo in 2006. Hagen has been a featured composer at the Tanglewood, Wintergreen, and Aspen music festivals, and has served as artistic director and head of faculty for the Seasons Fall Music Festival in Yakima, Washington (2008-2012) and currently serves as Chair of Composition for the Wintergreen Summer Music Academy in Virginia.
Hagen made his professional debut as a stage director for the Skylight Music Theatre with his musical I Hear America Singing (2014), for which he contributed book, lyrics, and score. In spring 2015 he directed his opera A Woman in Morocco for Kentucky Opera.
He is currently developing three operas,The Deputy, on a libretto co-written with Barbara Grecki based on the play by Rolf Hochhuth, Orson Rehearsed, on his own libretto, mapping the inside of Orson Welles' mind during the last sixty minutes of his life, and 9/10, an opera that takes place in an Italian restaurant the evening before the collapse of the Twin Towers.
Hagen's music is essentially tonal, though serial, pitch class, and octatonic procedures are customarily utilized for psychologically and emotionally fraught passages. It is "notable for its warm lyricism, but his style defies easy categorization. While his works demonstrate fluency with a range of twentieth-century compositional techniques, those procedures are secondary to his exploitation and expansion of the possibilities of tonal harmony, giving his music an immediacy that makes it appealing to a wide spectrum of audiences. His music is broadly eclectic, drawing on a variety of styles as diverse as jazz, Broadway, Latin music, Italian verismo, and soft rock." According to Hagen, "Polytonality figures prominently in the major operas as a mechanism for manifesting the interaction between characters." Hagen, asked at one point by Bernstein to complete Marc Blitzstein's opera Sacco and Vanzetti, acknowledges a debt to Blitzstein's music: "I find the musical DNA of which it is composed indispensable. Strands of that DNA -- strict adherence to economy of means, a passion for combining words and music, the belief that music can promote social justice, an abhorrence of pretension -- are woven contrapuntally, inextricably, into the music that I compose, and have been, nearly from the start."
Hagen's vocal music is described in The New Grove as "the cornerstone of his compositional output." He has remarked, "I love voices and I like singers, and along with the intersection of loving music and words and singers, I adore the process of composing and going through the production of musical theater. There is the communion of people coming together to commit to undertaking a work of art that is larger than any of us." "Using his gift for composing vocal lines, [Hagen] produces songs that flow lyrically and illuminate texts with unerring musical and dramatic aim. His scores are full of extensive markings, requiring singers to use variety of tone color to achieve the emotions inherent in the texts."
His operas embrace a particularly broad stylistic spectrum. In Shining Brow "Hagen's baseline idiom," writes Tom Strini, "seems to be modernist-expressionist, tonal but freely dissonant. He sets all sorts of influences, from barbershop to ticky-tick dance music against that idiom, to underscore character and crystallize the period (1903-'14)." In Vera of Las Vegas, Hagen, writes Robert Thicknesse, "blends idioms -- neo-Gershwin, jazz, soft rock, Broadway -- with soaring melodies that send the characters looping off in arias of self-revelation." "Bandanna is neither fish nor fowl — as fierce as verismo but wrought with infinite care; a melding of church and cantina and Oxonian declamation," writes Tim Page. Catherine Parsonage expands upon this assessment: "[it] is wholly convincing as a modern opera, ranging stylistically from the music theatre of Gershwin, Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, to traditional mariachi music and contemporary opera of Benjamin Britten. Hagen, who served his apprenticeship on Broadway, acknowledges that holistically the piece falls between opera and musical theatre. Hagen's style encourages audiences to be actively involved in constructing their own meanings from the richness of the textual and musical cross-references in his work." Hagen's effective fusing of many styles into a coherent personal vision is recognized by a 2014 American Academy of Arts and Letters Academy Award that acknowledges the "outstanding artistic achievement [of] a composer who has arrived at his or her own voice."
In 2007 self-publishing enabled Hagen to become one of the first American opera composers to make evolving performance materials for the opera Amelia (and all his successive works) available exclusively in an online environment: "The opera's principals were given access to a password-protected website on which Hagen placed pdf files of Amelia's vocal score. When he modified a scene, he simply uploaded an edited file, and an automatically generated message informed the cast of the change."
According to Opera News, "to say that [Hagen] is a remarkable musician is to underrate him. Daron is music." The NATS Journal of Singing has described Hagen as "the finest American composer of vocal music in his generation."
Hagen's debut opera Shining Brow premiered in 1993 to universally glowing reviews in the international press. When the Buffalo Philharmonic released the first recording on Naxos in 2009, David Patrick Sterns noted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, "the ceaselessly inventive score hooks you early on, easily embracing a wide range of predominantly tonal modes of expression, from barbershop quartet to Der Rosenkavalier quotations. The music's theatrical timing and naturalistic sense of language--so problematic in other contemporary operas--feels effortlessly right. Dramatically speaking, the portrayal of the great architect is so unflinching that Wright (played with many layers of irony by the excellent Robert Orth) borders on being too unsympathetic to carry this sizable, two-act opera. Particularly effective is the musical creepiness that sets in as Wright's high-ego world grows refracted from reality.".
Hagen's 2010 opera Amelia premiered to positive reviews in The New York Times, Financial Times, Times of London, Seattle Times, The Washington Post, and Opera Magazine, among others. Heidi Waleson in The Wall Street Journal described the work as "both highly original and gripping. ... Amelia is a modern opera with traditional values ... Mr. Hagen's restless, questioning music never loses its heart." Ivan Katz, in The Huffington Post, wrote "Hagen's score is well-composed and, in many respects, a work of genius. He tends to write in a more facile manner for the women, but his writing for the men (especially tenor William Burden) is complex and highly effective." Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times noted that "the opera is earnest and original, if heavy-handed and melodramatic. [It is] a serious, heartfelt and unusual work. However, there is too much lyricism and no break in the orchestral richness."
His 2013 opera, A Woman in Morocco, deals with the issue of human trafficking. A "film noir, verismo, cinéma vérité". While in its college workshop production at the University of Texas, the characters were felt by one graduate student to "come across as flat and largely unsympathetic and so frustratingly spineless that it's hard to care about them," when the work was given its professional premiere in spring 2015 under Hagen's direction by Kentucky Opera, professional critics noted that "[its] complex score works to underline issues with leitmotifs, musical cues assigned to different characters, and music that never settles or rests. When singers get soaring arias, they emerge naturally from this intricate texture. Hagen has a gift for writing sensually rich tunes and uses this skill to release the music at important moments." Most of the universally positive reviews touched approvingly on the opera's subject matter:
Will [a new opera] find a connection with tradition while creating something fresh and timely? I believe that composer Daron Hagen and his co-librettist Barbara Grecki have [done this] with their new two-act opera. ... Hagen's score feelingly captures the deep contradictions of its story and its characters in music that evokes the beauty and mystery of an exotic landscape, the dangerous and deceptive sensuality of its inhabitants, and the intense violence that is always just beneath the surface of a culture that threatens and terrorizes women.
Hagen has been awarded the 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship. Hagen's music has received the Columbia University Joseph H. Bearns Prize; the Charles Ives Fellowship (1983) and an Academy Award (2014) citing his "outstanding achievement [by] a composer who has arrived at his own voice" from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a Barlow Endowment commission and prize, three prizes from the Broadcast Music Incorporated Foundation and three Morton Gould Young Composer Prizes from ASCAP, as well as the ASCAP Foundation Rudolf Nissim Prize for Orchestral Music, Opera America's Next Stage Award, a production grant from the Readers Digest Opera for a New America Project (1997), several production grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for orchestral music.
His first composition to attract wide attention was Prayer for Peace, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra (1981), garnering him the distinction of being the youngest composer since Samuel Barber to be premiered by that orchestra; the New York Philharmonic commissioned Philharmonia for its 150th anniversary (1990); the University of Wisconsin Madison School of Music commissioned Concerto for Brass Quintet for its 100th anniversary (1995); the Curtis Institute commissioned Much Ado for its 75th anniversary (2000). Hagen's commissions from major orchestras and performers between 1981 and 2008 included orchestral works, five symphonies (for the orchestras of Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Oakland, Albany, and Phoenix), seven concertos (for Gary Graffman, Jaime Laredo, Sharon Robinson, Jeffrey Khaner, and Sara Sant'Ambrogio, among others), several massive works for chorus and orchestra, two dozen choral works (including one for the Kings Singers), ballet scores, concert overtures, showpieces, two brass quintets, six piano trios, three string quartets, an oboe quintet, a duo for violin and cello, solo works for piano (His Suite for Piano was a featured new work for the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition), organ, violin, viola, and cello, and seventeen published cycles of art songs. (Hagen has over 300 art songs in print.) Material from Shining Brow was used in Hagen's piano piece "Built Up Dark", written for Bruce Brubaker in 1994.
A frequent collaborator with living writers, he has set poetry by Nuar Alsadir, Ze'ev Dunei, Stephen Dunn, Sarah Gorham, Susan Griffin, Peter Handke, Reine Hauser, Seamus Heaney, Robert Kelley, Richard McCann, Kim Roberts, Stephen Sandy, Mark Skinner, and Mark Strand, among others. In 1990 Hagen began a creative collaboration with the Irish poet Paul Muldoon that resulted in four major operas: Shining Brow (1992), Vera of Las Vegas (1996), Bandanna (1998), and The Antient Concert (2005). "[Writing libretti for Hagen's operas gave Muldoon], a writer who has had to weather accusations of cerebral detachment and heartlessness the opportunity to indulge in frank emotionalism," writes David Wheatley. Libretti for Hagen operas have also been written by Barbara Grecki (New York Stories, 2008), J.D. McClatchy (Little Nemo in Slumberland, 2010), and Gardner McFall (Amelia, 2010). He has written his own libretti (A Woman in Morocco, 2013, and New York Stories, 2008). Hagen is currently at work on the music and libretto for his tenth opera, Orson Rehearsed, which he will also design and direct.
Recordings of Hagen works may be found on the Albany Records, Arsis, Sierra, TNC, Mark, Naxos Records, Sony Classical Records and CRI labels, among others. His music was published exclusively by EC Schirmer in Boston (1982-90); and then by Carl Fischer Music in New York (1990-2006); in 2007 he began self-publishing under the imprint Burning Sled. In 2017, Burning Sled struck a licensing agreement with Peermusic Classical for Hagen's operas.