The son of longtime New York Philharmonic concertmaster John Corigliano, Sr., Corigliano received his formal training at Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music; his teachers included Otto Luening, Vittorio Giannini, and Paul Creston. Corigliano's father, with his from-the-trenches perspective on the world of classical music, at first discouraged John Jr. from pursuing a career in composition, all too aware of the difficulties that faced contemporary composers. However, after a stint as a music programmer for radio, Corigliano attracted international attention for his Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963), awarded the top prize at the 1964 Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.
From that point, he continued to evolve a musical language in which architecture, color, and overt drama are paramount. While his works are steeped in a Romantic aesthetic that makes liberal, unembarrassed use of tonality, Corigliano's inclusive sensibility has led him to also employ extended instrumental techniques, microtones, and elements of minimalism and serialism (sometimes in a parodistic context); more recently he has incorporated live electronics into his music. The orchestra is clearly Corigliano's native medium and the ensemble for which he has written his most compelling works. He has demonstrated an especial interest in the concerto; in his concerti for piano (1968), oboe (1975), clarinet (1977), flute (1981), and guitar (1993), Corigliano both approaches the relationship between soloist and orchestra from a fresh perspective and makes notably creative use of the instrumental resources at hand. The Symphony No. 1 (1990), written in response to the AIDS crisis, is remarkable for its effective alchemy of intensely personal associations and musical potency; in 1991, it was awarded the Grawemeyer Award, the most lucrative prize in the world of contemporary classical music.
On an occasional basis since the 1980s, Corigliano has lent his abilities to producing film music of exceptional interest. His score for Ken Russell's Altered States (1980) was nominated for an Academy Award; nearly two decades later, he took home the Oscar for his score to François Girard's The Red Violin (1998). Though Corigliano's catalogue of chamber music remains relatively slender, works such as the Grammy-winning String Quartet (1995) and Chiaroscuro (1997) for two pianos suggest an increasing interest in writing for smaller forces.
The composer's affinity for the voice is at once evident in numerous vocal and choral works like the "memory play in the form of an oratorio" Dylan Thomas Trilogy (1999) and the song cycle Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (2000). His most ambitious work to date, the opera The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), has earned worldwide plaudits and, in a rare instance among contemporary operas, has enjoyed repeated productions since its premiere.