Stephen Albert was born in New York City on February 6, 1941. His first musical instruments were the piano, French horn, and trumpet. At age 15, he began his composition studies with Elie Siegmeister. Two years later, he enrolled at Eastman School of Music and studied with Bernard Rogers. Later studies were in Stockholm, at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, and at the University of Pennsylvania.
From 1985 until 1988, he served as composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony. He also received commissions from the Seattle, Baltimore, Pittsburg, National and Chicago symphonies, The Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and the Library of Congress. From 1988 until his December 1992 death in a tragic car accident, he served as a professor of composition at the Juilliard School of Music.
He received many awards and honors, the greatest of which was the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his symphony, River Run, in 1985. River Run along with Treestone, Flower of the Mountain, and Sun’s Heat, was inspired by the work of James Joyce. Other awards include two MacDowell Colony fellowships and grants from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund.
Albert's music is described as being "establishing links with fundamental human emotions and musical archetypes". He used the compositional techniques of the 19th century to convey 20th century emotion.