Remembering American Composer Arthur Farwell and His Family: An Interview with His Son, Jonathan
Arthur George Farwell (1872-1952) was instrumental in helping to develop an American style of musical composition for the twentieth century. I became aware of Farwell and his historical importance when I met Ms. Jeanne Behrend in the 1980’s in Philadelphia. Ms. Behrend, a composer, concert pianist, leading scholar on American music, and avid Farwell supporter strongly encouraged me to focus my research interests on Farwell. His music and musical contributions were very important and had been sorely neglected.
Since that time, I have been in communication with the Farwell family, specifically Brice and Jonathan. Over the course of one year I had the pleasure of getting to know Jonathan through email correspondence in the form of an interview. The purpose of this interview is twofold: 1) To help promote the musical legacy of Arthur Farwell among my professional colleagues, and 2) To see Arthur and his family in a very personal way: through the eyes of Jonathan, his only surviving child.
Forward by Jonathan Farwell:
My parents were divorced in 1937, when I was five years old, and I saw very little of my father until I was ten or eleven. From then until I was 14, I had Sunday dinner with him and my stepmother pretty regularly, then went away to prep school. So all answers to your questions are limited by the fact that I wasn't really raised by Arthur Farwell, and didn't know him as closely as I would have liked, or as if I had lived in his sphere more intimately. Also, he was something of an Olympian figure, emotionally distant in some ways, even when present. Nevertheless, he was a caring and loving father, and we all loved and admired him. I was serving in the Air Force (age 20) when he died at nearly 80.
Utsch: Jonathan, thank you for taking the time to share with me about your father Arthur and your family. My first question to you is this: What was it like in a household with your father as quite a prominent composer?
Farwell: Arthur’s duties as Head of Music Theory at Michigan State College (now Michigan State University) kept him pretty busy, and such time as he was able to spend at home was devoted either to composing or to working at his lithographic press in the basement, where he did considerable self-publishing. We (my five older siblings and I) were sternly admonished not to disturb Dad when he was working, so we kept our distance when he was at his desk or at the piano. I have memories of watching him at work at his press, so he evidently tolerated my presence in the basement as long as I didn't pester him too much. He almost always presided at the dinner table, however, and took great pleasure and amusement at the antics and humor of his children, and even joined in their japes and silliness at times. Stern when he felt the need, he seldom if ever, to my recollection, displayed temper or impulsive anger. On those rare occasions when some crime on my part necessitated a spanking, it was always preceded by the measured statement, "Son, this will hurt me more than it does you." And indeed, I remember humiliation, but not pain.
There were concerts on campus, for which I was allowed to stay up late and evening visits by faculty colleagues when music was played, and though I was sent to bed, I also remember creeping down the stairs to watch and listen through the banisters in wonder at the music. Even at this very early age, I somehow understood that my father took his musical life very seriously. I can even remember that two of the most frequent visitors were Morris Hochberg and Michael Press, so I must have heard their names frequently in the house1. After the age of five, though, I was no longer raised in his household. I learned only recently that Hochberg, in a long career, made Farwell’s Sonata for Violin and Piano a centerpiece of his repertoire, with his wife at the keyboard.
Utsch: How much of the time did Mr. Farwell speak of his strong interest in using American music in his composition?
Farwell: My personal experience of this is marginal, as most of my contact with Dad was during his retirement years. I was aware, though, that he had written for Oscar Thompson's International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians a fairly comprehensive article on Nationalism in Music. It may have been here that he "took up the gauntlet" of Dvorak's famous challenge to find indigenous roots. I believe this may be at least in part what led him to his intense interest in Native American sources in his quest for an American voice in composition. I know that in this process he developed great respect for Native American spirituality, as expressed in his introduction to "American Indian Melodies." It can be argued that his focus on Indian music may have been a mistake: American Indian culture is unquestionably indigenous to this continent, but what relationship it might have borne to the culture of a population whose real roots were overwhelmingly European is open to question. Farwell was often labeled an "Indianist," and I have often wondered whether he didn't in some measure paint himself into a corner. Where Copland found a distinct voice in western and folk, and Gershwin in jazz, Farwell's exploration of Native American themes never led him to the same kind of popular distinction. Yet he was truly seeking an American Voice, partly because he was frustrated and offended by the almost total domination (in his early years, certainly) of the concert world by the European Establishment. I'm sure he saw himself as championing the mitigation, if not the overthrow, of this domination. This is perhaps easier to understand if one remembers to regard him in the context of a 19th century man (b. 1872) who got most of his advanced training in Europe (Humperdinck, Pfitzner, Guilmant). It explains, too, why in his Wa-Wan Press publishing venture (ca. 1901 - 11) he championed the works of any number of other American composers who, at least up to that time, had been ignored by the establishment publishers. So in answer to your question, I imagine he spoke about it more than a lot. I'm sure that in his lecture tours for the National Federation of Music Clubs, it must have been his predominant theme. Note, though, that it didn't take him long to go beyond Native American sources. Most of his more mature work departs from that early influence.
Utsch: Who were some of the pianists you remember that performed your father’s piano music during his lifetime and those since his passing?
Farwell: During his lifetime there must have been many of whom I have no knowledge. The ones I do remember are Karl Ulrich Schnabel and Helen Vogel, who performed Farwell's Mountain Vision (Symbolistic Study No. 6), which had won an award from the National Federation of Music Clubs in 1939. It is for two pianos and string orchestra in the form of a one-movement concerto; in the family archive we have a recording of the 1939 radio broadcast, taken off the air (you can imagine its technical inadequacies!). John Kirkpatrick played his Navajo War Dance No. 2, and probably other things. Jeanne Behrend played his "Sourwood Mountain,"2 as well as "Navajo War Dance No. 1."
Since his death there have been quite a few pianists who have shown interest. The ones I have met personally are Neely Bruce, who was the first ever to play his 1949 Piano Sonata (in 1974); Grant Johannesen, who used his Navajo War Dance No. 2 as an encore on his Russian tour; Ruth Anne Rich, who played his Piano Sonata at Merkin Concert Hall in 1986 at my suggestion; and David Vayo, who some years ago made a wonderful recording of the suite for piano, "In the Tetons." Vitya Vronsky Babin used his "What's in an Octave?" as a teaching piece at the Cleveland Institute of Music in the '70s, though whether she ever performed any of his works publicly I'm not sure.
Utsch: Briefly describe daily life in the Farwell household.
Farwell: After the divorce (1937), Arthur Farwell was no longer present. Gertrude (my mother) did her best to hold things together, but she was not very good at the practical side of life, and was emotionally fragile, understandably, at that time. We had to move into a more modest house, and even so, had to take in a "roomer" in an attempt to make ends meet.
Certain memories remain, though, from days prior to that. Brice (my oldest brother) used to tell of a day when Dad arrived home bearing five ice cream cones (I must have been too young for one), hollering for the kids to come eat them before they melted. Once, Dad drove some students to another town for a musical event, and provided a pound of peanut brittle for them all to share on the way. The family car was an old green Reo with a rumble seat, which must have made the "sharing" problematic; at any rate, the story goes that Dad ate the whole pound! He was also in the habit of putting enough sugar on his shredded wheat so that he could feel it crunching between his teeth (most of which he kept until the end of his life!). I have trouble resisting sweets and still have most of mine.
Then there were visits by such notables as Carl Sandburg, for whom Dad provided some arrangements of folk songs for his "American Songbag." Sandburg later sent a thank-you note, in which he mentioned seeing me naked on a blanket on the floor as a one-year-old, describing me as "Jonathan Kirkpatrick Kilkenny Gilhooley, with his six toes, his goat gravity, his eyes with hills of rain..." That was in 1933. In 1961 or '62, in the course of a theatre tour, I happened to meet Sandburg at a reception in his honor. I asked if he remembered my father, and his eyes lit up: "Well, Jesus wept!" he said. "Are you Jonnie? Have you still got the twelve toes?" I was all but speechless.
Roy Harris had been Dad's student at Michigan State College, and Dad was rather proud of having "discovered" him. (There is a well-known story of his introducing Harris to some distinguished musical assemblage with the words "Gentlemen, a genius! But keep your hats on!") I have a dim memory of a visit by Harris and his young wife Johana to our home, memorable, I suppose, because Johana was singularly beautiful, and must have smiled at me. In the late 1980s I met her when she was retiring as doyenne of the UCLA piano faculty. Johana was a remarkable and very forthright lady.
During the days in my early teens when I regularly visited Dad for Sunday dinners, one purpose of these visits was so that I could carry back to my mother each week what passed for my child support. It was always in cash, in a sealed envelope: eight dollars and thirty-three cents. It represented a third of his MSC pension. Of course, in those days the New York City subway cost a nickel. One of the happiest memories of those Sunday suppers, though, was that they were invariably followed by either a game of chess with Dad (he always spotted me his queen, so I'd have at least a chance at winning), or anagrams with him and Betty, of whom I was quite fond, until she began to decline into what became, after Dad's death, a sort of paranoid schizophrenia.
Utsch: What career choices did you and your siblings make?
Farwell: My sister Sara (child # 4) was the serious actress. After one year at Knox College, she abandoned academia for professional training in New York. She studied under Irwin Piscator at the New School, and was a member of his summer theatre on Long Island, along with Marlon Brando and Elaine Stritch. She married Seymour Milbert, who was to become a principal assistant and stage manager to Elia Kazan, and for a time they were a part of the New York "scene." Seymour, however, after producing two children with Sara, became chronically ill (bi-polar disorder in today's parlance), and the strains this produced in their life eventually led Sara to abandon her professional aspirations as an actress in favor of becoming a Linklater voice teacher for actors, eventually serving in that capacity for the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the University of Washington, Yale School of Drama and SUNY Purchase.
Emerson (six years my senior and Arthur's child #5) spent most of his life in a career with the U. S. Post Office, but was also trained early on in commercial art at Cooper Union, and later achieved an art teaching degree at Hunter College.
Brice (child #1) had a career with IBM, eventually as liaison between the high-level brains and the executive suite. He died at 89, having spent many if not most of his retirement years organizing and cataloguing Arthur’s archive and assuring its permanent residence at Eastman’s Sibley Library.
Arthur Bragdon (child #2) had both physical and mental health issues that kept him from achieving much stability in his life, despite great talent as a mechanical draftsman and a passion for R. W. Emerson (a distant relative by marriage, actually) and Walt Whitman. He succumbed to a blood infection at 67.
Beatrice (child #3) was a world-class art historian, specializing in Manet and in French lithography, and after twenty years with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, became an honored member of the Art History department at UC Santa Barbara until her retirement. She died at 89, beloved by her colleagues, and with a secure place in the annals of art scholarship.
Cynthia, my half-sister, born when Dad was almost 70, was a nurse by profession, and a very good one. She studied piano diligently, and I particularly admired her rendition of Mendelssohn's “Rondo Capriccioso”. Sadly, she was the first to pass on, at 41, of a sudden attack of encephalitis. Despite the fact that she was at work at her hospital when stricken, they were unable to save her. Her mother, my step-mother Betty Richardson Farwell, was also an accomplished pianist and had met my father as his student at MSC. So none of us apples fell too far from the tree!
As for myself, I have never, since my youth, worked at anything but theatre, with a couple of "sabbatical replacement" stints in academia, where I loved working with acting students, but flunked faculty meetings. I spent many years in resident theatre companies (no longer the option it once was), two years at Arena Stage in D. C., four years at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, and five at the Cleveland Play House, before embarking on a New York and Hollywood career involving mostly Broadway and Television, with a few horror films thrown in. I consider the pinnacle of my career to have been the last six months of a lengthy tour of "Amadeus," during which I took over the role of Antonio Salieri. My predecessor in the role had been Daniel Davis, who had been Ian McKellan's understudy on Broadway. My first wife, Joerle, a good actress and gifted teacher of theatre for the young, succumbed to breast cancer in 1990. Now long retired, I maintain my addiction (as does my second wife Deb) by participating in local theatre in Fort Collins, Colorado. During the past three years I have played King Lear, as well as a wonderful role in a two-character play, “Trying,” about the last year in the life of Francis Biddle, FDR's Attorney General and chief American Judge at Nuremberg. Either of these would have made an excellent swan song, but in early 2013, at 81,I reprised Salieri in a splendid local production of ‘Amadeus,” for which the Colorado Theatre Guild presented me with its annual “Henry” award for “Outstanding Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play.” If it's the last performance I ever do, playing a composer who felt neglected in his later years, I won't be unhappy, but I’m already booked to direct a holiday show and perform another interesting role next year.
Utsch: As a follow up to the previous question, who in your family inspired career choices of the children?
Farwell: Several of us had some degree of musical training. For the most part, cost may have been a factor in this not being more extensive. Beatrice was pretty good at piano, and loved choral music, for many years being a member of The Cantata Singers in New York City. Emerson studied violin (my father's instrument), and I have dabbled with classical piano for most of my life, but never as whole-heartedly as I might have liked. The odd thing was that, though Dad never discouraged any of our respective interests in music, he never encouraged us, either, to consider it as a career. I have never quite been able to dismiss the thought that he may not have wanted any serious competition within the family. But he was an Olympian, indeed Promethean figure in our eyes, and I for one was not sure that I could ever please him, to say nothing of approaching his stature or accomplishments.
I have to say that my primary inspiration for career choice had to be my mother, Gertrude Brice Farwell. She was a classical actress of the old school with a voice like a church organ and a sense of characterization that ran rampant through Charles Dickens and indeed everything she read to me, which was a great deal. As her last and much younger child than the others, I was her sole companion and audience through much of my childhood. She was ably abetted by Sara, who smuggled me into her theatre life with Brando and Stritch for a few weeks one summer when I was twelve. Also, mother had demonstrated great talent when young, and when she married Arthur he was very prominent in New York musical life, well established and twenty years her senior, and I have no doubt she saw him as a springboard from which to launch a professional career. Alas, she had six children, the first three only about a year apart, instead of the dreamed-of career, and despite his prominence, Arthur's pockets weren't that deep. By the same token, if Arthur had any expectations of a dowry from Gertrude's apparently well-heeled family, it soon became evident that her alcoholic father had pretty well drunk that well dry. Given all this, it's not surprising that Gertrude channeled her talent into inspiring her children, particularly Sara and me. But she tempered her maternal pride with careful doses of reality: when she came to see my undergraduate performance of Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," (the local reviewer had called me "brilliant"), she said afterward, "Well, in about ten years you'll be ready to play Shylock."
Utsch: Evelyn Davis Culbertson states in her book, He Heard America Singing, that “In his last years, Arthur Farwell reiterated his belief that he would come to be more widely known and heard after his death than during his life, or at least his later life.” Knowing your father as you did, why do you think he stated this?
Farwell: This is an interesting question. As Culbertson recounts, after training in Europe with Humperdinck, Pfitzner, and Guilmant, Dad returned to the States around the turn of the century and taught briefly at Cornell before electing to follow his own more individual path, convinced that Cornell was woefully behind the times for what he envisioned as America's musical future. He was an eloquent speaker and ultimately proved to be a fine and inspiring teacher, but he managed to avoid further formal involvement with academia until he accepted the Music Theory post at Michigan State College in 1927. Although he fulfilled his responsibilities there with serious devotion, he was dogged and frustrated by the usual impedimenta of academic life, as well as by the effects of the Depression on his salary and work load. I have always been under the impression that he accepted the post because it was the only remaining option that would enable him to support -- however meagerly -- his large family. Indeed, Culbertson quotes his attempt to resign in April, 1931, in which he states: "I am compelled to realize that the things I intend to do and the plans I have made for myself...in the immediate future make it impossible for me to retain my connection with...Michigan State...." What those things and plans were I can only imagine, but I suppose I should be grateful, since at that time I was in utero, that his resignation was refused, and he remained at MSC until his forced retirement in 1939.
I bring all this into my response to your question in order to help us understand the frame of mind Dad must have been in at this stage of his life. I am convinced that he took his role as a crusader for greater recognition of American composition as central to his life and being, and that though he fought hard on behalf of many composers of his generation, he was also deeply confident of the essential worth of his own musical output and his capacity for continued creative growth. His “Piano Sonata”, dating from 2 - 3 years prior to his death, is one example confirming this self-assessment. And in his time he had had a variety of platforms from which to conduct his crusade: The Wa-Wan Press; his post as director of music for New York City (Supervisor of Municipal Concerts); his position as chief critic for Musical America; his work with the American Federation of Music Clubs, to name a few. So here he was, at almost 60, anticipating the birth of his sixth child, loaded with responsibilities, feeling the need to break out of the niche necessity had forced upon him, and realizing that ultimately, he had to "stay the course." Wouldn't it be understandable for an artist in this situation, seeing a life-time of work receiving less recognition than he might have expected, to comfort himself that he was simply ahead of his time? But I know it is not that simple. These are worldly considerations. My father’s was a soul of far greater spirituality and cosmic awareness than would need to justify itself this way.
And the proof of the pudding, as they say, is that he was right. Dad died over 60 years ago, and here you are, Glenn, exploring his archives at the Sibley Music Library and playing a lot of his music (beautifully!) . There have been others over the years: Paul Sperry, Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Neely Bruce, and David Vayo, to name a few. Recently there was a choral music conference in D.C. (which, alas, I was unable to attend), at which his work in that field was featured. I am now in touch with a violinist in California who is preparing Farwell’s Sonata for Piano and Violin for public performance with his wife at the piano. In June of 2013 a chamber group here in Fort Collins did a rousing performance of his piano trio, “Owasco Memories,” hosted by NPR’s Bruce Adolphe. There is apparently more interest in Farwell today, as far as I know, than was evident in the latter part of his life.
Utsch: What travels do you remember taking with your father? Do you remember meeting any particularly interesting or influential people? With Mr. Farwell’s interest in Native American music, did you go with him to any of the reservations?
Farwell: I'm afraid this answer has to be "None of the above." Such travels as he did among the reservations and tribes took place long before my birth, but Dad had great respect for Native American spirituality and in his preface to his American Indian Melodies (ca. 1901), he writes at length about his convictions regarding its expression in their song.
I didn't spend significant time with Dad until age 11, and that was mostly limited to the Sunday suppers I described earlier, and occasional family gatherings, usually at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I lived with him, Betty and Cynthia for one summer break from prep school, but this was all long past the days when he had occasion to visit with prominent or influential people. He attended my high school graduation in Danbury, Connecticut, but after a summer job and a freshman year at Yale, I enlisted in the Air Force, whence I flew back to New York for his funeral.
Utsch: What do you remember your father mentioning to you about his compositional style?
Farwell: One Christmas in my teens, we all enjoyed some Burl Ives recordings Beatrice had brought, and Dad spoke of his love of folk music, of his love for community singing, and the whole idea of music that ordinary people could sing together. He mentioned his "Sourwood Mountain," based on a traditional Appalachian tune, and remarked that he had thrown in a sailor’s hornpipe as a second theme because it “seemed to fit.” One conversation in which he referred to a specific musical idea was when he mentioned to me that in one movement of his “Quintet for Piano and Strings”, he used a relentlessly repeated bass note on the piano to create the effect of a ritual Chinese gong. Why he chose to strive for that effect, I didn't have the good sense to ask him at the time, but as counterpoint to the American flavor of the piece, it IS quite effective. Another time, he spoke of his symphonic suite, “The Gods of the Mountain,” a programmatic work on the play of the same name by Lord Dunsany. He explained that he was looking for a theme indicative of the derisive laughter of the gods at the impudence of the beggars who impersonated them for personal gain. While pondering this, he happened to hear some children playing in the street, chanting the age-old “Nyaah, nya-nya Nyaah Nyahh” at some other kids. Inspired, he introduced it as an oboe solo in a minor key, and then gradually built it to an overpowering crescendo of godly wrath and vengeance.
Regarding Dad's compositional style, I have to say that when I listen to the various recorded things we have, I have to ask myself, "If I didn't know this was all Farwell, would I recognize it as such?" When we hear Gershwin or Copland, to cite obvious examples, there's no mistaking the identity of the composer. When I listen to Farwell, words like "eclectic," "wide-ranging" or "multi-faceted" tend to suggest themselves. I often wonder if this represents an asset or a liability. I know he was always striving for new voices, new dimensions. He was certainly a seeker who didn't "settle" on a style.
Utsch: Your mother and father were very spiritual. Could you explain this?
Farwell: This is a significant question with wide-ranging answers, and I'll try to avoid rambling. Dad was a serious admirer of William Blake, and he and my mother both admired Kahlil Gibran, all of whose books my mother cherished, in particular. She was a devoted member of the American Theosophical Society, and often spoke with great admiration of Krishnamurti, and other Eastern thinkers/leaders/gurus. My own opinion is that this mutual appreciation of a life of the spirit beyond the vicissitudes of ordinary material life did not necessarily mean that they were in complete agreement about it in all ways. I suspect that mother was more in search of comfort, reassurance and relief from the pain and unpleasantness she found in much of what we call "reality." There was something of the romantic in her search, and at times, something that seemed to me to smack of desperation. When I asked her why, at 70, she had converted to Catholicism, she smiled and said, "I like the pageantry." She also enjoyed hearing the mass in Latin ~~ I think it took her beyond the ordinary with its ritual and formality.
I felt that my father, on the other hand, had a firm grip on a well-grounded approach to the life of the soul, based on years of thought, serious study, and his own inner experience of what he called intuition. All this resulted in rather firm convictions about his place and mission in the scheme of things, and, for better or worse, he lived by these convictions and used them creatively. I think all this gave him the strength to survive the frustrations and penury of his latter days with dignity and, yes, a kind of nobility. I'm sure it was not easy for him, after the life he'd had, and the recognition he had received, to realize in his final decade, that he had been passed over, and was to all intents and purposes a "forgotten man." To the end, he spoke of life with enthusiasm and humor, at least as far as I was able to observe.
Utsch: Your father wrote an unpublished book, a treatise on Intuition. Would you comment on the essence of this book?
Farwell: As for Arthur's use of intuition, there is one account which I would like to share as an example. At some point Dad realized he had accepted commissions to compose more pageant music than he felt he would be capable of completing on schedule by his usual compositional means. As the story was reported to me (probably by my brother Brice), after a long evening walk to relieve his anxiety (if not panic!) about it, he arrived at his quarters late at night, sat in the dark in what must have been a meditative (if not trance) state, and proceeded to visualize before him a pair of hands conducting an imaginary orchestra. Watching these hands, he eventually began to "hear" the music being conducted, and was able to retain it and transcribe it. I have no details as to how long he practiced this compositional technique, but apparently it enabled him to complete all his commissions on schedule. I have always been impressed with this tale, though I honestly can't recall if Dad ever mentioned it to me himself. It leaped vividly to mind, however, when, in "Amadeus," I had to say, referring to Constanze: "She had told me that these were his original manuscripts. Yet they showed no corrections of any kind. It was as if Mozart was simply transcribing music already completely finished in his head! And finished as most music is NEVER finished!" So, as the Emperor Joseph II says in the play: "Well. There it is!”
As to Dad’s book, “Intuition in the World-Making,” the only copy available to me is missing some chapters, is enormously long, and perhaps for other, less fathomable reasons, I have never been able to read it. If I live long enough, I may try.
Utsch: Why do you think that your father was so passionate about taking the lead in helping to create an American style of musical composition in the early 1900’s?
Farwell: Well, there was Dvorak's challenge, of course, though I'm not sure exactly when that particular gauntlet was thrown down. There may also have been on Dad's part a realization that his most recent and most advanced training had been at the hands of Europeans, so his passion may have been in part a reaction to this. I suspect, though, that principally he became aware that many of his colleagues were not only being ignored by the publishing establishment, but that perhaps the reason for this was that what they were writing was too largely influenced by European tradition and style. His ventures into American Indian sources may have been part of his own effort to avoid this. I think there was also a more-or-less constant undercurrent of anger at "the establishment," and its (for him, at least) too constant reliance on the European repertoire. His opera, "Cartoon," on which he was still working at the time of his death, was a satire meant to expose the establishment's overwhelming neglect of American compositional potential. One of its villains, as I recall, was the conductor of the "Philobostoyork Symphony," and I seem to recall a lyric in which this conductor inveighed against American composers who were always assaulting him with "...a bothersome bore of an opus." I believe that Dad, fairly late in life, probably after his retirement from Michigan State, had submitted a score to Leopold Stokowski, and after some months had passed with no acknowledgement, he wrote to Stokowski saying, in effect, "If you're not going to look at it, send it back." In due course, he received it back, unopened. (If it wasn't Stokowski, it was someone equally prominent.) Sad to say, he received the same indifference from Roy Harris, his own protégé and "discovery." I don't recall the details, but I know he was hurt by this.
But back to the early 1900's, fresh from his European "Wanderjahre," I know Dad felt in his soul that an American voice was needed, that revolutionary effort was required to achieve this, and he styled himself a "revolutionist." The fact that his own particular voice was not the one America heard is just an unfortunate reality. Art is a tough game, with very few real winners. But he never stopped believing in himself and his art, and if he was bitter, he knew better than to show it.
Utsch: Is there anything you would like to add in regard to your father’s composing or his career?
Farwell: Dad didn't marry until the age of 45. Until that point, he was passionately engaged in his life crusade, and at the time of my parents' marriage, he was prominently established in the New York musical world. I'm sure Mom must have thought that Dad would be her path to a theatre career. (I hasten to add that I do not mean this in any venal sense. She was also madly in love with him.) As parenthood loomed, I believe that Arthur began to feel that New York was no longer where he wanted to be, so shortly after Brice was born the family headed for California. From that point on, life for Arthur Farwell became a constant juggling act between family responsibilities with limited resources, and the demands his principles as an artist placed upon him. There were times when we, his children, felt that we were the chains that bound Prometheus to the earth, but he never deliberately expressed this view.
As for his composing, his music must, like anyone else's, speak for itself. For this to happen at this late date, of course, there must be ears to hear, and musicians to perform. The fact that at least some of his oeuvre is being discovered, or re-discovered, speaks well for American scholarship, and for those who, like yourself, are willing to put in the necessary effort. And I feel a need to mention, once more, the enormous contribution of Evelyn Davis Culbertson, speaking of scholarship, and of the anonymous friend who spotted the archive at a Washington warehouse auction, and had the good sense to put in the only bid and turn the whole works over to Evelyn, who was in search of a topic for her Doctoral Dissertation. She located the Farwell family through me, whom she had seen in a performance at D.C.'s Arena Stage. Then Brice helped her sort it out. Had all this not occurred, Arthur Farwell might have survived as a footnote to American musical history, but most of his music would have been lost forever. Stories like this hang by a thread of destiny, and I cannot escape the conviction that there is some cosmic meaning to it all.
Utsch: Ideally, what would you like to see regarding the promotion of Mr. Farwell’s music in the twenty-first century?
Farwell: This is a tough question. Here I have to confess my own lack of sufficient musical sophistication to even begin to understand what would be the best future for Farwell's music. What I would wish for most fervently is continued interest in the music on the part of an ever-growing body of serious musicians who will care enough to give more of it more performances. This is, I suppose, as much a matter of spreading the word as it is of individual application. It would be nice to see a proliferation of interest beyond the halls of academe, and I think it would be marvelous if someone (or some institution) would take the trouble to seriously investigate some of the larger, unwieldy works such as "Mountain Song," which calls for a full symphony orchestra and large chorus. I think you mentioned that you've looked at a few of his polytonal studies. I suspect there's interesting stuff there.
Honestly, though, I think much of Farwell is, as Hamlet says, "caviar to the general," meaning not for everybody. I am content with this, and I'm sure he would be, too, as long as there are still those with enough discernment to recognize merit in the music. A famous anecdote from long ago recounts that a prominent German diva, after performing one of his vocal works, took his hand and said, with great sincerity and a thick German accent, "Mr. Farvell, your musik iss vor....musicianss!"
For myself, my heart is warmed whenever I encounter or hear of a good musician who is taken enough by any of Dad's music to give it the effort it needs and deserves. Thank you, Glenn, for being a part of this devoted and (I hope) growing band of artists who are still willing to help Arthur Farwell find his voice.
Utsch: Thank you, Jonathan, for sharing your story. My sincere hope is that your words will help to inspire a revival of interest in your father’s compositions and in his important contributions to the development of twentieth-century American music.
1Morris Hochberg (1917-2011) was a violinist and assistant concertmaster with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He was also an educator (Wayne State University), chamber musician, and conductor. Michael Press (Mikhail Press), 1871-1938, was a Russian-American violinist, educator (Curtis Institute of Music, Michigan State College), composer and conductor.
2Jonathan actually worked up the nerve to play Sourwood Mountain in public…once!
Glenn Utsch received his Doctorate of Music Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, where he studied with Dr. Robert Pace. He is currently Professor of Piano at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.