American Composers in the time of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907)
Guest blog post by Conductor Scott Parkman
During the 19th century, while artists like Saint-Gaudens, Samuel Morse, James Cooper, Samuel Chase and many others were seeking inspiration, education, and adventure in Paris, American composers, too, were seeking these types of connections to music’s European mecca: Germany, particularly Leipzig and Berlin.
One of the mid-19th century American composers most drawn to Germany was John Knowles Paine. As a composer Paine does not appear on this program, but he had incredible influence over the direction that 19th century American music would take. Born in Portland, Maine, early on Paine went to Berlin to study composition and organ. After touring Germany as an organist, he returned to Boston, where, after some effort, he convinced Harvard University to begin the country’s first Department of Music, which it established in 1862. Establishing a Department of Music at Harvard was no easy task as music was thought to be a non-academic topic. Paine was constantly under attack from the other faculty, most famously by the celebrated historian Francis Parkman, who, for years when Harvard was in a budget pinch was always ready with a motion to abolish the music department and appropriate its funding. Parkman is said to have ended every meeting over this topic with the words “musica delenda est” [music destroyed].
By establishing a music department at Harvard it was possible to train students in the foundations of European musical counterpoint, orchestration, repertoire, and composition. Through his efforts there, Paine helped establish a “Boston School” of composers that were amongst the nations first cohesive, recognized, and most importantly, performed.
Among these was Arthur Foote (1853-1937), whose Fugue from his Suite for Strings in E Minor will conclude the program. Foote was a respected and admired musical figure in the City of Boston. He had several orchestral works performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and regularly appeared in recitals as a pianist – solo and chamber music – in places such as Isabella Stewart Gardner’s grand Venetian palazzo in Boston’s Fenway Park area. Foote has the distinction of earning the United States’ first Master of Arts in Music degree, granted by Harvard University in 1874.
Another composer on our program who comes from this Boston School is Amy Beach (1867-1944). Her story is truly unique. She was not in the Paine-Harvard class, for Harvard’s women’s “annex” didn’t open until 1879, with the official Commonwealth charter for Radcliffe College coming in 1894. Thus, as a composer, she was largely self-taught. However, from all accounts, Beach (née Cheney) was a musical prodigy, displaying gifts of memory, perfect-pitch, and precocious piano technique very early on. Her debut performance came with the Boston Symphony when she was 20 years old, playing Chopin’s Concerto in F Minor.
In 1885, she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, 10 years her senior and would go on to sign her scores, Mrs. H.H.A Beach. Dr. Beach requested that Amy curtail her performing career to remain home and focus her attention on composition. Beach’s national reputation eventually grew as she wrote a Mass in Eb, a large-scale symphony (“Gaelic”, which Symphony New Hampshire performed last fall), and a piano concerto.
When her husband died in 1910, Beach returned to her international performing career. She triumphed with her Symphony and Piano Concerto in the hallowed halls of Leipzig and Berlin. With the outbreak of WWI she had to return home to Boston, and continued to compose and concertize. The work on our program, Amy Beach’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op. 150, is a late work, combining her virtuosic piano technique, melodic lines drawn from her earlier art songs, and earlier settings of native Inuit songs.
Arthur Foote and Amy Beach were in a group of composers that included Paine, Edward MacDowell (New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony founder), George Chadwick (long time director of the New England Conservatory) and several others, all more or less making their contributions from a shared home base of Boston.
Cut from a very different cloth to the Boston Group was Charles Griffes (1884-1920). His Poem for Flute and Piano will begin our program.
Griffes was born in Elmira, NY and the lure to Berlin also had him doing his formal studies there at the Stern Conservatory. After conservatory, however, Griffes charted a singular path. He took a position as director of music at the Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown, NY, composing in his (limited) spare time. Griffes quickly drifted away from German romanticism toward the Impressionistic influences of Debussy, and then on even further into the world of the Orient with a work like The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla-Khan(1915).
In 1919, at the age of 35, Griffes had achieved the beginning of artistic success: a concert dedicated to his music by the Modern Music Society, the premiere of his Poem with the eminent Flutist Georges Barrère and the New York Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux conducted the orchestral premiere of The Pleasure-Dome with the Boston Symphony, repeated it in Carnegie Hall, and in late December, Stokowski and Philadelphia Orchestra premiered Nocturne for Orchestra, The White Peacock, Clouds, and Bacchanale.
Sadly, Griffes died in April of the next year – a tragic casualty of the 1918-20 Flu Epidemic. With him passes way a possible direction of America’s Art music in the early 20th century.
Certainly, the most iconoclastic composer on our program is Charles Ives (1874-1954). He is also the one with the most obvious artistic connection to Saint-Gaudens; Ives drew inspiration and titled the first movement of his Three Places in New England, “St. Gaudens” in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment).
Charles Ives was an American individualist par excellence. Born in Danbury Connecticut, he studied with his father, who was a trained musician and bandmaster during the Civil War. He went to Yale to study with Horatio Parker, who like Paine at Harvard, tried to instill the techniques and foundations of European Art Music. Ives could only take so much of that approach, and quickly veered off into an artistic space truly his own.
Because being a professional composer was not really a financial option for most people in late 19th/early 20th century America, Ives – the pragmatist – moved to New York City and went into the Insurance business. For years he would sell insurance by day, and compose at night. Ives was inspired by the American transcendentalists, and wrote a piano sonata titled Concord Sonata, with the movements titled, “Emerson”, “Hawthorne”, “The Alcotts”, and “Thoreau”.
Our program features the final movement from Ives’ first string quartet, subtitled “From the Salvation Army”. This work was begun while Ives was a student of Parker at Yale, and Ives does manage to follow some of the rules of composition. But strict European counterpoint was not his penchant, and he does introduce polymeter (one group plays in ¾ and another plays in 4/4 simultaneously), which, I’m sure was not met with approval. Further uniquely to Ives, much of the source material for the work comes from American revival and hymn traditions.
As the late 19th century transitioned into the early 20th, America as a nation was just starting to find its global footing. So too was America’s Art Music, as it was trying to come to terms with what an American music might mean and sound like. Certainly, the composers of this time were consciously looking over their shoulders to glean judgment from Europe as to its worth.
Amy Beach and Arthur Foote lived long lives (he to 84, she to 77). They and their cohort were right in the thick of it. Big orchestras were being created, chamber music societies were presenting the latest and greatest works and performers, and operas and songs were appearing on American themes derived from shared American experiences.
On March 4, 1937, for the occasion of Foote’s 84th birthday, Amy Beach sent him a wire:
“You and I have seen many extraordinary changes (I won’t say “developments” a word that fits Wagner, for instance, but hardly Hindemith e.g.) while I remember so well the evening you first played with the orchestra in the old Music Hall. Those were good days indeed — in fact the time from 1880-1900 was a golden time.”
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