A Brief History of Composers' Groups in the United States

October 1, 1980

From a hasty perusal of this year's CMS program (1979), I can only conclude that there are but few of us reckless generalists still about, ready to cover the entire history of a country's musical activity, or at least one part of it, in something like 30 minutes. I hope the specialists among you will forgive the presumption of that attempt and perhaps also forgive a rather highly selective view of composers' groups in the United States. I will limit my remarks to those groups whose work had what I perceive to be national significance, and not discuss those more purely local organizations whose work may well have been and still is excellent, but who appear to me to have had less than national impact.

Looked at with the proper amount of poetic fantasy one might say the first group of not-quite composers, but at least compilers, were three men of New England, all ministers and at least two of them graduates of Harvard and thus precursors of College Music Society members. They were the Reverends Thomas Symmes, John Tufts and Thomas Walter, who were united in their desire to improve the sad state of singing and musical knowledge into which the young colonies had fallen in the early 1720s. They all published modest books which contained suggestions for the instruction of singing and music reading, as well as a small compilation of psalm tunes to which their instruction might be applied.

The results of their work, which did indeed stop the decline in musical skills noted by so many commentators of the early American musical scene, led to a development of even greater significance: the establishment of the American singing school movement and the happy and uncommon artistic situation accompanying it, namely the creation of a musical and social context that DEMANDED special music to be written for it. Thus we have the rise of the first native school of American composers: such familiar names as William Billings, Daniel Read, Lewis Edson, Supply Belcher, Justin Morgan, Jacob French, Jeremiah Ingalls, Oliver Holden, Andrew Law and many others. It is difficult to determine just how well organized they were, whether or not they knew each other, or how often their paths may have crossed. Billings' work was known and used by so many other composer-compilers that he was compelled to enter into several legal attempts to protect his work from piracy, the results of which would turn to instant gray the hair of any current ASCAP lawyer, but which at long last did bring him some measure of relief, at least in his home state.1

Irving Lowens has uncovered evidence of an extensive correspondence between Daniel Read and some of the composers I have listed above, so perhaps they were a loosely knit organization united by their strong and common purposes rather than a formal constitution.2 Their need to provide easily accessible music which could be used in the singing schools and which could be published in their astonishingly well-selling tunebooks was a powerful cohesive factor in their lives. I like to think of them as our first composers' group, albeit untitled and unorganized except by function.

The next example of composerly togetherness in our history seems to be the informal alliance formed by the first wave of musical immigrants from England who came to the New World shortly after the conclusion of the American Revolution. Composers such as John Hewitt, Alexander Reinagle, Raynor Taylor, Benjamin Carr, and John Moller were united, again not by an organization (although there was something called the Philadelphia Musical Fund begun in 1820 and numbering Carr and Taylor among its members) but by the multiple musical chores they were called on to perform, of which music composition was but one and not necessarily the most important.3 These men were composers but also music teachers, performers, music store managers, opera producers, concert entrepreneurs, tour managers, and publishers. Their incredibly varied activities contributed heavily to music in America and even American music—Hewitt composed the famous Battle of Trenton piano sonata—especially in the areas of the emerging urban centers.

The early Moravian composers might also be considered an important composer group in early America. United by strong religious convictions and a firm belief in the importance of music in daily life, they succeeded in creating an amazingly large body of beautiful vocal and instrumental work which seems to have been used largely in the few areas in which Moravians resided: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Winston-Salem, North Carolina to name two of the most prominent. The names of Johann Peter, John Antes, Herbst, and Dencke deserve to be remembered by us. One of the former presidents of CMS, the late Donald McCorkle, contributed greatly to the modern rediscovery of their work.

All of these early groups—the ministers, the Yankee tunesmiths, the first musical immigrants, and the Moravians—were alike in some striking ways. Few if any of them seemed to have had any pupils who carried on their work or ideas. They had no school affiliation or organizational framework, and they often worked in that special kind of composerly isolation not unknown to many of us today.

The next group which might be called an organization was that collection of professional "improvers" of American tastes who, according to one theory, did so much to thwart the Yankee tunesmiths but who according to another view returned music to religion rather than letting it develop in its own way. Led by Lowell Mason, such men as George Webb, Thomas Hastings, William Bradbury, Henry Oliver, and Benjamin Baker were held together by their love of hymns, their business acumen in selling their collections, their desire to improve American tastes by turning away from the native composers and looking to the melodies of the European masters, and their intention of placing music in the American public schools, which they first achieved in Boston in the late 1830s. It may be a little fanciful to think of them as a group but their common purpose was so strong I hope I may be forgiven this somewhat artificial clustering.

An even more informal group of composers were those men associated with the increasingly important Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Allied against John Dwight, the supreme arbiter of concert hall musical taste in America from 1852 to 1881 through the pages of his Journal of Music, such men as William Mason, Richard Hoffman (a sometime accompanist for Jenny Lind), George Warren, and Charles Hopkins, the latter of whom founded the American Music Association in 1856, sought to deflate the pompous cant of Dwight and to take more accurate readings of the American musical pulse.4 Loosely linked with the American nationalist composers Anthony Heinrich and the spirited duo of William Henry Fry and George Bristow, the latter of whom openly attacked the conservative policies of urban musical organizations, the New York Philharmonic in particular, and the suppression of American composers, these men were held together by their passionate belief in the cause of American music and the emerging talent of American composers.

The Boston group of composers of the late nineteenth century provided perhaps the best prototype of a CMS type of organization with the academically-employed Paine, Parker, MacDowell, Foote, Chadwick, and the free-lancing Mrs. H.H.A. Beach and Frank Van den Stucken. Van den Stucken actually formed the New York Manuscript Society in 1888 and in 1889 anticipated the later work of Nicholas Slonimsky when he conducted a concert at the Paris Exposition in 1889 containing music by MacDowell, Chadwick, Foote, and Huss. This group was later reorganized as the Society of American Music and Composers in 1899. Chadwick in his diaries does recount several performances of his work sponsored by this group, so evidently it did have some importance. There was also a Music Manuscript Society of Philadelphia founded in 1892 by W.W. Gilchrist and P.H. Goepp but accounts of its activities are hard to come by.

Another highly informal group of composers were the men centered around Scott Joplin, the premier ragtime composer. Tom and Charles Turpin, Arthur Marshall, Louis Chauvin, and Scott Hayden were unique in their flaming interest in ragtime and their support of each other. It was not uncommon to find some of them actually helping each other musically in the composing of their ragtime pieces.5

The group of composers around Arthur Farwell and his Wa-Wan Press is another important prototype of a composers' organization. Composers such as Arthur Shepherd, Henry Gilbert, Gena Branscombe, Arthur Andersen, Frederic Ayres, Rubin Goldmark, and others rallied around Farwell and his press, which had its heyday in the 1901-1912 period. At the end of that time it was purchased by G. Schirmer. The purposes of the Wa-Wan Press were clearly set forth by Farwell:

The Wa-Wan Press, at Newton Center, Massachusetts, is an enterprise organized and directly conducted by composers, in the interest of the best American composition. It aims to promote by publication and public hearings, the most progressive, characteristic, and serious works of American composers, known or unknown, and to present compositions based on the melodies and folklore of the American Indians.6

Farwell loved to write high-minded editorials in a prose style much like that of Charles Ives, which often appeared alongside the music. He never tired of stating his conviction that "America demands not only a new art, but a new art-life as well." He tried to use Indian music in a manner strikingly reminiscent of Bartók's use of the folk music of Eastern Europe. If in looking through the pages of the recently reprinted Wa-Wan Press we may not find the music on quite the level we had hoped for, it is still hard not to be moved by Farwell's fatherly encouragement to American composers, his penetrating analysis of the American musical profession and its preoccupation with European ideas and heroes.

In 1914 the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded by Victor Herbert and others. It was an organization mainly devoted to protecting copyrights and licensing fees, although it now has an extensive policy of granting support monies to composers in the concert hall and popular music fields. It numbers today more than 16,000 composers among its members.

The history books on American music usually credit the International Composers' Guild, whose life span was from 1921 to 1928, as being the first "real" composers' organization in the United States.7 It was formed mainly by Edgard Varèse as the "idea man" and Carlos Salzedo as the get-things-done man. Their first season saw three concerts, all taking place in a small theater near Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. The opening program in February, 1922 contained music by the Americans Emerson Whithorne and Louis Gruenberg and among non-Americans, Malipiero, Honegger, and Goossens.

At the conclusion of the first season an executive secretary was appointed to manage the concerts. Also that year Carl Ruggles joined the Guild, more as a cheerleader for Varèse than as someone who could help with the details. Louise Varèse said Ruggles "looked dazed if you asked him to hand you a cup of tea." The International Guild of Composers was responsible for many important American premieres of music by Bartók, Berg, Casella, Chávez, Cowell, Hindemith, Honegger, Krenek, McPhee, Milhaud, Ruggles, Ornstein, Poulenc, Rudyhar, Satie, Schoenberg, Varèse, Webern, and many others. Such distinguished conductors as Eugene Goossens, Klemperer, Reiner, Stokowski, and Rodzinski contributed their talents to the organization. The Guild's final program in 1928, to give an idea of its standards, contained the Berg Chamber Concerto, the Stravinsky Octet, the Varèse Intégrales, and Salzedo's Concerto for Harp and Wind Instruments.

The Guild ran into trouble during its second season when Mrs. Claire Reis was appointed its executive secretary. The clash between the fiery, uncompromising Varèse, and the extremely energetic and ambitious Mrs. Reis was inevitable. Varèse felt that Mrs. Reis wanted to be more than the executive secretary and when she called a secret meeting to resolve a difficulty that had developed regarding a matter of policy, the split was inevitable and unreconcilable.

The Guild had a policy of giving only first performances and when Mrs. Reis and a few others wanted to repeat a performance of Pierrot Lunaire, Varèse, rather uncompromisingly, would not agree. The others felt that the large public interest in the work plus the 22 rehearsals they had held warranted an exception to the Guild policy. However, if it had not been this issue, it is clear another one would have come along soon enough.

Without having to read too much between the lines of Louise Varèse's biography of her husband,8 it is clear that his was an uncompromising kind of idealism, beautiful to read about years after but difficult to interact with at the time. It did achieve a kind of quality in repertoire selection that comes best from a single mind but which is impossible to sustain, at least in a composers' group in the United States. Louise Varèse is very clear in her book that Varèse was a very democratic person, and accuses Mrs. Reis in her book, Composers, Conductors, and Critics, of being "carefully misleading" in suggesting that Varèse was insufficiently familiar with democratic procedures to remain long as the leader of the group.9 This is the ancient conflict between high quality and wonderfully refined taste on the one hand, and democratic tendencies and the potential danger of lower standards on the other.

Incidentally, Schoenberg himself was rather furious at the Guild for having scheduled Pierrot without consulting him. He wanted to know how they could call themselves international when they had not played a single German work, although this was only their second season. Then he was angry because the Guild had announced the performance on a specific date without Schoenberg's permission. He wanted to know if they had an adequate woman speaker, enough rehearsal time (Schoenberg himself had had 100 rehearsals in Vienna), did they have any idea of the work's difficulty, the declamation, the tempi, and so forth. Louis Gruenberg was the conductor for the Guild and although he wanted more time to prepare, even after 22 rehearsals, the Guild decided to go ahead with the performance because of the widespread publicity the concert had received.

The Guild gave only a few concerts each year. It was centered totally in New York and although it did encourage the formation of a German branch and was in close touch with its Italian counterpart, there was no attempt to reach out to other parts of the United States. The major decisions about repertoire were made by Varèse and Salzedo.

It seems to me that the International Composers Guild was the closest thing we have had in America, until the advent of the American Society of University Composers, to Schoenberg's Society for Private Music Performance in Vienna. It was extremely idealistic, almost totally shorn of social and non-musical trappings, and it actively sought out the best and most challenging music.

In 1928 Varèse, after having vowed never again to get involved with starting another composers' organization, did exactly the opposite when he formed the Pan-American Association of Composers. The purpose of the group was to try and stop the drift towards neo-classicism, a direction Varèse felt Europe was slipping back to, but which to him was only neo-academicism. This time there was more openness to the governance with Varèse acting as president of the executive committee, but with four vice-presidents: Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, Emerson Whithorne, and Carlos Chávez. Later the musical collaboration of Nicholas Slonimsky, aided by the generous financial backing of Charles Ives, was to create the strongest impression yet made in Europe by American composers when Slonimsky conducted the music of Ives and Ruggles in France.10

The split in the International Composers Guild led Mrs. Reis and a few of the composers who were dissatisfied with Varèse's domination, Louis Gruenberg and Lazare Saminsky among them, to form their own group and this became the League of Composers. It began in 1923 with Mrs. Reis as executive chairman, a post she held for 25 years. In 1954 the League merged with the International Society for Contemporary Music and it continues in that form today, giving some seven concerts a year in New York City.

Mrs. Reis represented and had access to people of means, and from the start there was a much more social and societal quality to the League than there had been to the Guild. Although the latter had moved uptown in its last years, the League began its series of concerts in prestigious mid-town Manhattan locales. It has been said by those attending the events that they were true "galas," almost something on the order of the famous Hollywood premières of old. The social prestige of the concerts was as much a part of their success as the musical aspect. The Varèse camp looked on this process as a way of promoting mediocre talents where the focus on music itself became blurred.

At the time of her concluding season in 1948 Mrs. Reis amply demonstrated the powers of the organization by the following activities: 10 composers were given commissions supported by music publishers and various individuals and 20 major United States orchestras played works commissioned by the League throughout its history. The list of persons who made up the Board of Directors was a "who's who" of American music. The collected issues of the League's magazine, Modern Music, long time almost the sole source of serious commentary on new music in this country, made a most impressive collection of composers' writings on their colleagues' work. The magazine had been superbly edited by Reis' friend, Minna Lederman, who had also started out with the Varèse organization. The auxiliary board of the League contained the names of many important persons in the New York social and financial worlds.

The League was always international in its outlook. It almost invariably welcomed important composers upon their arrival in the United States with concerts of their work. Schoenberg, Bartók, Milhaud, Hindemith, Prokofieff, Villa-Lobos, Florent Schmitt, Julian Carrillo, and Kurt Weill were among those so honored. Unlike most other groups, the League was financially able to invade the difficult and expensive area of presenting fully staged theatrical works. Schoenberg's The Lucky Hand, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and The Story of a Soldier, De Falla's El Retablo de Maese Pedro, and Douglas Moore's The Devil and Daniel Webster were among the works so presented.

In 1929 a group called the National Association of American Composers and Conductors was founded by Henry Hadley and others. The origins of this group are not entirely clear but one of them may have been the feeling that the League of Composers was more interested in the European and American avant-garde, and that middle-of-the-road composers or others lacking political punch or important New York connections, had no organizational outlet. The NAACC did form chapters in various large cities and was responsible for many hundreds of concerts in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington and other places during the time of its existence. The group was reformulated in 1975 by the late John Vincent, formerly chairman of the music department of UCLA, as the National Association of Composers, USA, with its national headquarters shifted from New York to Los Angeles. The group continues to sponsor concerts of new music by its members, publishes a newsletter, has initiated a library collection at California State University-Dominguez Hills in Los Angeles, has begun a publishing venture of its members' work, has initiated a composition contest for young composers, and is broadcasting tapes of its members' work over an FM station in Los Angeles.

The American Composers Alliance, formed in 1937, is interested in stimulating the performance of American music and acts as both publisher and repository for a large body of significant American music. The American Music Center, begun in 1940 by Marion Bauer, Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, Otto Luening, Quincy Porter and others, sought to establish a center for information on contemporary American music. Its stated purpose was to "foster and encourage the composition of contemporary music and to promote its production, publication, distribution, and performance." It now numbers some 850 members and is the "Official United States Information Service for American Music" as so declared by the National Music Council. It houses an important library of more than 10,000 published and unpublished scores, records, and tapes, and is in the process of issuing catalogues of its members' work. Led now by Charles Dodge, its immediate past chairman was Leo Kraft.

Broadcast Music Incorporated was founded in 1940 and funded by 600 broadcasters. It is mainly a performing rights organization and claims to represent more than 10,000 writers. Like ASCAP, BMI has supporting grants for its composers, publishes an annual volume entitled Concert Music, USA, and issues biographies and catalogues of its members' works as well as assisting librarians in securing information about its members.

The principal organization of women composers in the United States is the International League of Women Composers founded in 1975 by Nancy Van de Vate, now a resident of Hawaii. Its aim is to obtain more commissions, recordings, and orchestral performances for its members. The membership is now more than 125 women composers. They are preparing a series of radio programs containing work by their members and their greatest success, according to Ms. Van de Vate, has been the bringing together of performers and scholars who are searching for music by women composers.

Another group, founded during the Bicentennial year by Mrs. Tommie Carl and called American Women Composers, has as its goals the gaining of status and recognition for women composers, financial support of women composers, scholarship aid for women to study composition, performance of members' work, and holding annual workshops for the interchange of ideas among women composers. I have not been able to learn if any of these activities has actually taken place as yet.

I wanted to save for last what I regard as the most important composers' organization now functioning: the American Society of University Composers. Founded in 1965 by Benjamin Boretz, Donald Martino, James Randall, Claudio Spies, Henry Weinberg, Peter Westergaard, and Charles Wuorinen, the group got off to a very stormy start. By the time of its second national meeting in St. Louis in 1967, the entire founding group had resigned under attack from composers throughout the country who felt they were being dominated by a "dictatorial Eastern clique."11

After a few shaky years, the organization began to come together under the leadership of Randolph Coleman, David Burge, myself, and now Edwin London, until it has assumed a place of primary importance in new American music. Of all the groups mentioned today, ASUC is most like Schoenberg's Society for Private Music Performance. Perhaps not as austere as Schoenberg had desired—applause is not banned at concerts, nor are press notices and publicity shunned, rare though they are—the Schoenbergian hope for "clear, well-rehearsed performances removed from the corrupting influence of publicity" has been achieved. There are not the "frequent repetitions" the master desired but otherwise it is very close to what he wanted. There is no preference for one school or another and composerly politics is held as low as is humanly possible.

What makes this group unique is that it is the first truly national composer's organization that I know of. It has divided the country into nine regions, each of which is charged with having its own area conference. There is a national three- or four-day meeting where music from all over the country is played. Since 1966 the Society has sponsored 147 concerts and performed over 900 compositions by 400 composers in 47 different locations throughout the nation.

In addition the Society publishes a newsletter, a magazine called Proceedings wherein outstanding papers of its regional and national meetings are reproduced, sponsors a series of 13 different radio programs heard over approximately 50 stations throughout the country, holds an annual composition contest for its younger members, publishes its members' music in the Journal of Music Scores, issues recordings of some of that music, and has held summer institutes on contemporary music.

There is a quality of perpetual youthfulness to the ASUC, perhaps brought on by its association with universities and colleges and the consequent influx of new talent it seems to attract, that gives to the group the kind of youthful vigor Aaron Copland was always trying to inject in the League of Composers during its later years when it began to lose a little of its punch.

In looking at all of these composers' groups one has the feeling that Emerson's famous essay on "Self-Reliance" should be the basis for their stated or unstated constitutions. I believe they perform an important function in giving composers an outlet for their compositions free of the cruelties of changing fashion, if also free of any great fame and public awareness. Still there is a seriousness of tone to many of these organizations that makes one proud to be a part of them and if they are as yet unknown by the larger musical public, they have a crucial role to play in the development of composers of all ages by giving the younger ones a well-prepared hearing and keeping the older ones youthful in outlook by virtue of their association with newer work and ideas.

If there can be said to be standard works of American musical literature, many of them had at least their performing origins, and sometimes their compositional origins too, in the work of composers' organizations. Looking back over the history of American music it is hard to imagine what status some of our most respected work would have had without the stimulus and support first given to it by the composers' groups themselves, patiently waiting until the public had the time and breath to catch up with it.

Perhaps the final word on the value and purposes of composers' groups should be left to Arthur Farwell, one of the pioneer composer-publishers of American music. Writing on April 1, 1904 from Newton Center, Massachusetts, in one of his editorials that accompanied the publications in the Wa-Wan Press, he said:

A word to critical persons. The Wa-Wan Press does not represent itself as a collection of masterpieces. It does not aim to be that which critics praise. It does not propitiate the gods of traditional culture. It does not seek to elevate the masses. It respects no coterie. It does not attempt to cover mediocrity with a cloak of patriotism. It is not a financial scheme masquerading as a "noble cause." Why invent all these complexities when the thing is so simple! To the winds with all such thoughts and pretenses; drop them over the rim of the Grand Canyon; they can not deface it, and they will be out of—not our way for they never were in it—but out of the critic's way, so that he can perceive a truer and more constructive way of criticism. Obliterate them.

The Wa-Wan Press is here to do work for American music. Work, not for pleasure alone nor for pay alone, but for both in due proportion; work, not always trailing clouds of glory, but with its suite of efforts and mistakes; work, so that something be done, something for us, here in America—so that the American composer and the American people can join hands, so that our musical life, in its best aspects, may stand closer to the natural sympathies of our daily life. The Wa-Wan Press aims to begin to voice in music the life of these states, the strong and elemental feelings of their aboriginal races, the substantial existence of their conservative population, the daring originality of their innovators, the poetry of their natural scenes, the dreams of their dreamers. This is a confessedly restricted scope of work; moreover it is a purposely restricted scope, defined, so that we can concentrate upon it and do it more whole-heartedly and better. Further, anyone who attempts this task will find it quite large enough to occupy him all of this life and all of the next that he is able to perceive.


Addendum. After the present article was submitted for publication the author stumbled onto an article by Sumner Salter in the January 1932 Musical Quarterly, rather deceptively titled "Early Encouragements to American Composers," in which the Music Manuscript Societies of New York, Philadelphia and Chicago are very extensively discussed. Readers interested in pursuing that matter further are encouraged to seek out this account.

Passing reference is made in the text of this article to the diaries of George Whitefield Chadwick. These nine thick volumes are, perhaps, one of the greatest unpublished treasures in the literary history of American music. They were "discovered" by Frank Pooler, the well-known choral conductor and editor and member of the music faculty of California State University/Long Beach when he was approached by Chadwick's son Noel. The diaries are presently in the library at CSU Long Beach in a typewritten written copy of the originals.

It has recently come to my attention that the principal action of the American Women Composers has been to install archives of women composers' work in the Library of Congress, the Fleisher Collection in Philadelphia, and at Radcliffe College. It is also working on a survey of grants to women composers made by the NEA and has done considerable lobbying in Congress on behalf of women musicians. It has created a board of musical advisors, a board of directors, and is planning on issuing some records of works by women composers in the near future.

1David McKay and Richard Crawford, William Billings of Boston. Princeton University Press, 1975.

2Irving Lowens, Music and Musicians in Early America. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975.

3Harold Gleason, American Music from 1620-1920. Rochester: Levis Music Stores, 1962.

4Robert Offergeld, record jacket notes to The Wind Demon. New World Records NW 257.

5James Haskins and Kathleen Benson, Scott Joplin. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Co., 1978.

6Arthur Farwell, statement of purpose accompanying the first edition of the Wa-Wan Press. Newton Center, Massachusetts, 1902.

7Gilbert Chase, America's Music (revised second edition). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

8Louise Varèse, A Looking Glass Diary. New York: W.W. Norton, 1972.

9Claire Reis, Composers, Conductors, and Critics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.

10Nicholas Slonimsky, Music Since 1900 (4th edition). New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1971.

11David Burge, "ASUC: Six Years." Proceedings 6 of the American Society of University Composers, 1971.

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