Reassessing a Recital Heritage

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373896

The Bicentennial celebration provided American musicians with what was perhaps an unforeseen good turn: an impetus to make a retrospective evaluation of their musical heritage. Since a celebration by common agreement seems to demand the use of music, and since the nature of the event we were celebrating suggested that the multiple phases and styles of American music should be called upon to highlight the early events in our nation's evolution, it soon became evident that we would have to visit library shelves in order to find representative examples of pre-1920 American composition. Or to put it another way, we had to re-examine the various composers of music from Revolutionary times to late Romanticism and American-style Impressionism. We are quite familiar with what Copland, Thomson, Piston, Cowell, Barber, Varese, and their peers brought to American music. But what was it that preoccupied the American composer before the sounds of Stravinsky and the precepts of Nadia Boulanger and, somewhat later, the dogma of Schoenberg moved over the land?

The purpose of the present survey is to call attention to some of the vocal and instrumental music—for solo and chamber groups—that merits reassessment, and that ought to be performed by college and university teachers and students. However, a vexatious barrier presents itself at the outset: much of the music by the people who are the primary subject of our research—the composers of the "Second New England School," namely, Paine, Chadwick, Foote, Converse, Daniel Mason, Amy Beach, Parker, and their immediate followers, Loeffler, Carpenter, and Griffes along with Farwell and the nationalists—has disappeared from the catalogues of publishers. In not a few cases the publishers themselves have also disappeared.

Fortunately a resourceful bibliographical tool provides great assistance to one who is interested in tracking down the music that is still available: Catalog of Published Concert Music by American Composers, collated by Angelo Eagon (Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, N.J., 1969), with a Supplement printed in 1971, and a Second Supplement published in 1974. But a couple of warnings must be given to one who wishes to use this versatile compilation of titles. Some of the music listed there has actually been withdrawn—for instance, most if not all of Charles Griffes's Songs once contained in the G. Schirmer catalogue are now "permanently out of print." And even so recent a work as John Alden Carpenter's Quintet for Piano and Strings (1939) has also been withdrawn from the same catalogue. On the other hand, several works which are listed as part of the valuable Da Capo Press reprints of Earlier American Music (edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock) have, as a matter of fact, not yet been published (as of this writing, Chadwick's Songs and Foote's Quintet among them). This means that if one wishes to study or perform the Griffes Songs, or any of the numerous worthwhile vocal and chamber works of the Bostonians, he will have to head for a library which is known for its ample music holdings. If locating the music involves the inconvenience of inter-library loan, I assure the devoted performer that the effort is worthwhile.

 

Could Anything Good Come from America?

Since it is something of a truism that it has taken our country well over a century to develop native art skills and forms of expression, it is not surprising that we have been self-conscious and apologetic about much of our earlier music. Our textbooks and histories are full of adjectives like "derivative," "influenced by," "dated," and so on. Chase crisply states that the Bostonians "were stronger in idealism than in technique, and stronger in technique than in originality. . . . They almost succeeded in making Boston a musical suburb of Munich."1 There is doubtless some truth to this; and yet when one performs or listens to a broad cross-section of this music, the statement appears jaundiced because so universal. The self-consciousness to which I have referred is characteristic not only of twentieth-century Americans: 150 years ago men like Lowell Mason, Thomas Hastings, and George F. Root looked back with embarrassment on William Billings and his rustic self-taught compatriots of Colonial times. Our own attitude towards Billings, Belcher, Read, and Swan is quite different: we are proud of them. The point is that the tastes and evaluations of one generation can differ greatly from those of another. I need not go into detail concerning the case of J.S. Bach. Even the words "derivative" and "dated" are not necessarily pejorative. Much of early Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and some of early Beethoven show varying signs of "derivativeness;" commentators all tell us this, though they do not belabor the word on every page. It is doubtless true that fewer of, say, Schubert's works sound derivative to us than do the compositions of, say, Foote and Paine. But it is my contention that these latter men and many of their contemporaries had some worthwhile musical ideas, and that they knew how to present them in viable form. They were trained craftsmen; they deserve our attention.

 

The Song Literature

With the exception of John K. Paine and Frederick Converse, virtually all of the East Coast composers wrote a variety of songs for voice and piano. Perhaps the major difficulty for today's singers is the problem of "identifying with" the light-weight and often sterile lyrics that seemed to appeal to men who otherwise displayed a sophisticated sense of judgment. Arthur Foote's song, "Ho! pretty page, with dimpled chin" (Op. 13), can be matched by the (to us) embarrassing texts of many MacDowell songs (recently reprinted in Volume 7 of the Da Capo series). Amy Marcy Beach, a prolific composer as well as a distinguished concert pianist, has more to offer: Three Songs to Texts by Shakespeare (Op. 39) and Three Songs to Words by Browning (Op. 44), along with numerous other works for voice.

Chadwick was perhaps the most prolific song-writer—over 100 pieces. And singers will be grateful for the fact that he wrote a fair number of songs for each voice range, i.e., Fifteen Songs for Soprano or Tenor, and Seventeen Songs for Alto or Baritone.2 A selection of songs with texts by Arlo Bates, a distinguished teacher (M.I.T.) and author, is scheduled for Volume 16 in the Da Capo series. Perhaps best remembered is Chadwick's setting of Lanier's "Ballad of the Trees and the Master," but there are many more that deserve serious inspection.

John Alden Carpenter, born in a Chicago suburb, came into the orbit of the Boston school by his studies with Paine at Harvard. As he matured, however, he showed a remarkable ability to absorb a variety of styles—jazz, Impressionism, Spanish rhythms, and Oriental colors. His catalogue of songs is not lengthy, but it is richer than usual: Gitanjali, a cycle of songs to texts by Rabindranath Tagore; Four Negro Songs to texts by Langston Hughes (with blues and jazz influence); and Four Poems by Verlaine. Except for the last item, according to Eagon, the other songs are still in print; they are also accessible in many libraries.

Charles T. Griffes, like Carpenter, composed a relatively small selection of songs; but during his short, productive life (1884-1921) he revealed an uncanny ability to absorb and make his own a variety of musical styles that drew the attention of American composers in the early 1900s. Perhaps the most notable of the songs are the Four Impressions (to texts by Oscar Wilde) and Three Poems (Op. 11, to texts by Fiona MacLeod [William Sharp]), which include the anguished "Lament of Ian the Proud." There are at least a half-dozen more that deserve study and performance.

 

Piano Music

The piano early established itself as the solo instrument of the nineteenth century. By the early 1850s the keyboard wizardry of Louis Moreau Gottschalk had convinced both Europeans and Americans that piano composition had come to maturity in the United States. It was to be expected that the Boston composers, so many of them trained in Germany, would display their talents in keyboard compositions. It takes time to uncover the works of Foote, Converse, Chadwick, and the others. But I would like to make special mention of the carefully wrought pieces of Amy Marcy Beach. The early opus numbers, like the Ballad (Op. 6) and a variety of character pieces, show the influence of Chopin and Schumann. The late neo-classic Prelude and Fugue (Op. 81, published by G. Schirmer, 1918) is available on a recent recording and is bound to reveal many surprises.

Frederick Converse's most important contributions to the musical repertoire were a couple of operas and several tone poems. He also composed a considerable number of works in smaller forms. His later piano music is quite pedestrian, composed, I suspect, for students. However, his early set of piano duets entitled Valzer Poetici (Op. 5) deserves attention, as well as his later and quite challenging Sonata No. 1 for Piano. No influence of Stravinsky or Cowell here, but the music is imaginative and carefully crafted.

This section would be incomplete without a special reference to the piano music of Charles T. Griffes. Most recent historians have begun to see in Griffes a major transitional figure between the New Englanders and the Copland generation. The four Roman Sketches (1915-1916) show an affinity to contemporary French piano style; but the Piano Sonata (1918; rev. 1919), demanding a big technique, moves toward a new world of sound: in Chase's description it is "richly expressive, exotic in harmonic color, and strongly emotional, with no padding or empty rhetorical gestures."3 It has been "discovered" in recent years, is appearing more frequently in recital, and has been recorded on the Philips label.

 

Edward MacDowell

Although Edward MacDowell lived for some years in Boston, most of his career was spent in Germany and in New York City. He was a contemporary of the New England group, but not one of them. Before the recent revival of the music of Charles Ives, MacDowell was generally considered the most gifted American composer of the generation preceding Aaron Copland; it is perhaps more correct to say that, since his piano works were given broader exposure than the music of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, he was therefore better known by a wider public and hence more highly esteemed. His strongly articulated and somewhat unorthodox views about various musical topics made him stand out as a controversial figure—like Stravinsky in our own time. Comments about his scorn for counterpoint, his ridicule of the American "nationalists," and his inflexible ideas about piano accompaniment for songs can be found in most histories of American music and in Lawrence Gilman's Edward MacDowell. A Study.4

Several of MacDowell's larger works deserve more frequent performances than they receive, especially the neglected Piano Concerto No. 2 in D. Of the smaller works, the four piano sonatas, especially the third called Norse (1900), and the fourth called Keltick (1901), deserve the attention of advanced students. His shorter genre pieces, too well known to need mention here, contain something for almost everybody in the family—the simple intermediate-grade works, and those like the more challenging Sea Pieces (Op. 55). Wilfrid Mellers, who—as an outside observer and a trenchant writer—so often tells us things about ourselves we might not otherwise perceive, provides a succinct overview of MacDowell's position in American music and presents, I think, a proper perspective.5

 

Chamber Music

Most of the Boston composers were drawn to various forms of chamber music: sonatas for duo combinations (piano and violin especially), trios, string quartets, quintets for strings and piano. Very little music for woodwinds or brass combinations is found among their works. Since space prevents a lengthy survey, I will call attention to only a few of the more notable compositions. Paine's student, Arthur Foote, was one of the few Bostonians who did not study in Europe; his String Quartet in E and particularly his Quintet for Piano and Strings in a (Op. 38, recorded two years ago on the Turnabout label) reveal an unmistakably Brahmsian sound—and an outstanding craftsmanship.

Chadwick, who, I think, is still waiting to be rediscovered, has five (somewhat uneven) string quartets and a worthy Piano Quintet. Amy Marcy Beach has, among other things, a Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, and a Quintet for Piano and Strings in vol17id394 (also recorded on the Turnabout label).

Daniel Gregory Mason has a wide variety of chamber works. The String Quartet on Negro Themes (rev. 1930) uses several spirituals, some disguised, a couple quoted literally. His Sonata for Piano and Clarinet is a strong three-movement work belonging in the repertoire of any ambitious clarinetist. The Divertimento for five wind instruments is one of the few extant works for this particular combination. Frederick Converse's Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (1922) will not replace Barber's noted duo, but it will provide variety. And finally there is Carpenter's late Quintet for Piano and Strings, which demonstrates that the composer has moved far from the early Boston brand of Romanticism, but has remained independent of Stravinsky.

 

Cadenza

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, particularly after the appearance of Dvořák's famous article in Harper's Monthly (February, 1895), a group of composers banded together to create a recognizable "American" music. Though many of them were Boston-trained, they made it their aim to break the bonds with Germany. Any student of American music is familiar with Arthur Farwell, Henry Gilbert, Edgar S. Kelley, Edward B. Hill, and the Wa-Wan movement. Through the beneficent services of Vera B. Lawrence, a five-volume edition of The Wa-Wan Press, 1901-1911 was published in 1970 (Arno Press and The New York Times).

It would be folly, of course, to claim that each of the 37 composers represented in the Wa-Wan volumes left something memorable. But Louis Elson, John Tasker Howard, and various contributors to The Musical Quarterly had high praise for several of them: they were the "American modernists"—contemporaries of another composer who chose to make his living through selling insurance in New York!

After the Wa-Wan Press discontinued publication, some of the composers who had been intimately associated with it continued to compose and publish their music through other companies. Special note might be given to the later chamber music of Arthur Shepherd, e.g., the String Quartet in E, Quintet for Piano and Strings, and Piano Sonata No. 2, and to the varied works of Edward B. Hill, who revealed his facile technique in the Sextet for Wind Instruments and Piano, Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, and his interest in experimental styles with his 1922 duo-piano work, Jazz Studies.

A spot check of the curricula of American conservatories as well as university and college music departments reveals that undergraduate performance majors are still "brought up" on the European classics. The repertory for most prize competitions still lists standard works that test the student's technique and musical understanding. Hence it is understandable why most teachers feel bound to continue to stay with the tried and the true.

Nonetheless it seems unfortunate that American students, particularly the more competent ones (whether graduate or undergraduate), should go through their studies unaware of a heritage that is ours, and in my opinion has been unjustly put to rest on library shelves. And even if the students may not have time to be introduced to some of this music, I urge teacher-performers, who engage actively in recitals (on or off campus), to locate and study this music, with a view to including it in their repertoire.


1Gilbert Chase, America's Music, rev. 2nd ed. (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1966), p. 381.

2While researching the music, I found that some composers were quite unconcerned about attaching opus numbers to their works. In some cases their early compositions had numbers, their later ones did not. Hence I was unable to follow a consistent method of listing the titles.

3Ibid., p. 522.

4A reprint of the 1908 edition (N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1969).

5Wilfrid Mellers, Music in a New Found Land (New York: Stonehill Publishing Co., 1975), p. 27. This is a paperback edition of the volume published by Knopf in 1964.

Read 1071 times

Last modified on Monday, 12/11/2018

Go to top