In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mr. LaMontaine was a rising star among classical composers, winning prizes, fellowships and commissions to write music.
He composed an overture for the 1961 presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy and wrote a series of three Christmas-season “pageant operas” — dramatic vocal works with orchestra — that debuted at Washington National Cathedral in the 1960s. One of those performances was broadcast on national television.
He first drew critical notice when soprano Leontyne Price — for whom Mr. LaMontaine had once been a piano accompanist — premiered his song cycle, “Songs of the Rose of Sharon,” with the National Symphony in 1957.
A year later, pianist Jorge Bolet debuted Mr. LaMontaine’s First Piano Concerto in Washington with the NSO and conductor Howard Mitchell. The composition was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1961, after the opening performance of the pageant opera “Novellis, Novellis” at the National Cathedral, Washington Post music critic Paul Hume pronounced Mr. LaMontaine “a greatly gifted American whose music Washington has good reason to know better than any other city.”
Mr. LaMontaine composed works for virtually every genre of classical music: symphonies, oratorios, string quartets, piano concertos, compositions for organ, sonatas, songs for solo voice and chamber works. His work has been likened to that of American composers Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem and has been performed by almost every major orchestra in the country, from the New York Philharmonic to the Chicago Symphony to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
His music often had a neo-Romantic quality, with lush harmonies, rhapsodic melodies and jazzy rhythms.
“I don’t want to be stuck in some hole, expected to do a certain thing,” he said in a 2003 interview with the NewMusicBox Web site. “There is not one of my pieces that is like another piece.”
Mr. LaMontaine traveled throughout Africa and Asia, recording birdcalls and other sounds of nature, which sometimes echoed through his music. Choreographer Gerald Arpino adapted one of his compositions, “Birds of Paradise,” for the Joffrey Ballet production “Nightwings.”
“He obviously had a feeling for the voice and a feeling for sounds in nature,” said Washington flutist Keith Bryan, who premiered Mr. LaMontaine’s flute concerto in 1981 at the National Gallery of Art. “He was a very lyrical composer.”
Bryan and his wife, pianist Karen Keys, often performed Mr. LaMontaine’s works together in concerts. Keys recorded the First Piano Concerto in the 1960s with an orchestra in Oklahoma City; Bryan recorded the flute concerto in 1995 with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.
“The third movement has just a gorgeous melody,” Bryan said in an interview with The Washington Post. “John wrote all the time. He was constantly writing music.”