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Robert M. Palmer was the Given Foundation Professor Emeritus of Music at Cornell University, where he taught composition and music theory for 37 years. He was born in Syracuse in 1915. After basic studies in piano, violin, and theory, he entered the Eastman School of Music in 1934 as a pianist, but soon decided to major in composition under Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson. During this period, he also studied informally with Quincy Porter, who exerted a formative influence on his style. After completing his bachelor's and master's degrees at Eastman, Palmer took private composition lessons with Roy Harris in 1939 and with Aaron Copland at the opening session of Tanglewood during the summer of 1940. He taught composition, theory, and piano at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, before joining the Cornell faculty in 1943, where he replaced his own teacher, Roy Harris.

At Cornell, Palmer founded the Doctor of Musical Arts program in composition (one of the first such programs in the United States) and guided it to national prominence before his retirement in 1980. Among Palmer's former students are Pulitzer-prize winning composers Steven Stucky and Christopher Rouse, as well as Paul Chihara, Leonard Lehrman, Jack Gallagher, and the late Brian Israel. Palmer held awards and fellowships from the National Academy of Arts and Letters (1946), Guggenheim Foundation (1952 and 1960), Fulbright program (1960), and the National Endowment for the Arts (1980). His music was commissioned by the Columbia Broadcasting System, Koussevitsky Foundation, Minneapolis Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra), Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Fromm Foundation, and many others.