Czech composer Antonín Dvořák is often remembered as someone who made invaluable contributions to American music. He composed his famous “New World Symphony” in the United States, he taught many future American musicians, and he tried to win respect for certain forms of indigenous American folk music. There was only one problem:
Actual American composers were already doing that. And they didn’t appreciate the intrusion.
Enjoy our seventh exploration into classical music history–we dive into some often-overlooked composers from the “Second New England School,” and we spend some time with a Unitarian minister turned Transcendentalist music critic named Dwight.
Grow a deeper appreciation of our homegrown music heritage with Backstage Podcast. And thanks for joining us.
Let’s imagine an early 19th century New England Christmas.
You know it’s cold–really, really cold–but you see fires happily dancing in your neighbors’ fireplaces and you can smell the smoke in the air. You’re walking down Beacon Street in Boston and the snow crunches under your feet as you go, and you walk by the McCauley’s house and smell that nasty fruit bread they make every Christmas. They always offer you some–maybe they’ll forget this year.
Horse-drawn sleighs, with actual sleigh-bells of course, jingle past you and leave a snowy wake on the street. This makes your walk harder, but you don’t mind. At least as long as the horses control themselves, if you know what I mean.
You near the old stone chapel and see the wreaths and candles in the windows, and you can see light flooding from the open doorway. It looks warm inside, and lots of people—wealthy families, poor families, young couples, old couples, and loners like you–are filing in.
A sign outside advertises a concert of excerpts from the oratorios of Handel and Haydn–it’s sponsored by the Boston Handel and Haydn society. You wonder if they could have been more creative with the name, but you decide that clarity is sometimes better than creativity.
Name or no name, you’ve been
excited about this concert. Today is Christmas day, and the year is 1815. There’s a lot to be excited about. The War of 1812 is finally drawing to a close, the United States is validating its place in the world, and you are about to witness the first paid concert of so-called classical music in the United States. The best part? It only cost you $1.
As you sit down among the other 1,000 or so people, the crowd suddenly grows silent. The strings are tuning. You had wanted to unwrap a piece of candy, but now it might be too loud–you’ve never been to a concert like this before, so you decide the candy wrapper would be annoying to others and you quietly slip it back into your pocket.
How times have changed.
This is Backstage Podcast.
Hey everyone, we hope you had a great Thanksgiving! We’re back with part two of our Dvorak series, but in all honesty, it’s more of a backdrop to the events of our previous episode than a continuation. Here’s a quick guide to today’s story.
We’re going to share several different stories, all of which could probably be expanded into their own episodes. This might remind you of “This American Life,” if you’ve ever listened to that.
Each story, while able to stand on its own, combines with the other pieces to paint the larger picture of classical music life in the United States leading up to Dvorak’s arrival in 1891. Yes, we will have to leave TONS of good stuff out because we don’t want this episode to be 30 hours long. But we’re trying to include some important highlights.
The first story is about an important musical critic in America throughout the mid 19th century. Then we’ll talk about American composers for a while.
Lastly, we will return to Dvorak and the comments he made regarding American music and composers during his visit to New York. Not everyone in the US was thrilled to have him here–and once we learned some more about America’s musical history, we could understand why.
We hope you enjoy episode 7, “National Treasure – Pioneering American Composers.”
John Sullivan Dwight: Dwight’s Journal of Music
First off, we’d like you to meet a guy named Dwight. He’ll be the subject of our first little excursion into American classical music history.
It’s hard to understand the environment in which American composers had to work without first learning about a gentleman named Dwight Sullivan. He was born in 1813 in New England, and he eventually became a Unitarian minister and theologian. Now that’s not the important part, other than the fact that being a Unitarian meant he didn’t really believe–or disbelieve–much of anything. He was a prime candidate for a funny little thing called “transcendentalism.”
Mid nineteenth century New England, or Massachusetts, anyway, was kind of a breeding ground for these transcendentalists. For sake of time, here’s a nice official definition of transcendentalism:
“An idealistic philosophical and social movement that developed in New England around 1836 in reaction to rationalism. Influenced by romanticism, Platonism, and Kantian philosophy, it taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity, and its members held progressive views on feminism and communal living. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were central figures.”
There you have it. Out with reason, in with Kantian philosophy and communal living, and you’re ready to party like it’s 1836.
Transcendentalists thought of themselves as an intellectually enlightened group. Artistically elite, too. I think of them now as the 19th century hippies, just on a smaller, and cleaner scale.
Dwight found himself in a friend group with the likes of Emerson and Thoreau, and he even lived with them on a goofy little arts retreat called “Brook Farm” outside of Concord, Massachusetts. Sounds an awful lot like the “Burning Man” retreat.
That’s enough background though. What really matters is that in 1852, Dwight founded his “Journal of Music,” commonly referred to as Dwight’s Journal. He had experience Beethoven’s music in the 1840s and he never looked back. Years later, Dwight reminisced about his early days as a classical music lover in the Atlantic Monthly:
“We were but babes in music, doubtless, and capable of little scientific understanding of the works we heard with rapture. Shall it be said, then, that that this love was mostly affectation or illusion? What was the so great need of understanding? Are great poems written, are great pictures painted, were the old cathedrals planned and reared, only for those who have themselves the knowledge and the power to do the like?”
He goes on to write about why the great classical music, which in his opinion includes Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and not many others, became popular in Boston:
“Our point is simply that the great music has been so much followed and admired hiere, not by reason of any great musical knowledge in said followers, not beause we have any technical musicianship or proper musicality, but purely because the music was great, deep, true, making itself felt as such; we love the music for the great life that is in it.”
Basically, his favorite classical music was great because it was, well, great. Oh, and because of the great life that was in it.
That logic holds up when you’re a transcendentalist.
So Dwight, who was not a musician by the way, became the first vocational music critic in the US. This non-musician, unitarian minister-turned transcendentalist became the leading voice of classical music in America. Dwight’s Journal ran until 1881.
He was a snobby guy, if you couldn’t already tell. He started off writing about the thing he loved, but he had turned into a grumpy old curmudgeon by the time Dwight’s Journal became prominent. And yes, of course we got that description from a scholarly source–somewhere.
Him being an American and all, you’d think Dwight would have an affinity for, say, American classical composers trying to break onto the scene in the mid-19th century. After all, the fight for American classical composers at that time was about as difficult, if not way more difficult, than the US Men’s National Soccer team trying to find relevance in the post-Jurgen Klinsman era.
Europe wasn’t interested, American citizens weren’t interested, and Dwight’s Journal of Music scoffed at the young composer’s attempts while lifting up the usual European composers as God’s gift to humanity.
Dwight had an almost laughable Eurocentric complex, but he was really just the product of a society that felt culturally inferior to Europe, for whatever reason. Dwight didn’t only attack American composers though–one of his favorite targets across the pond was Giuseppe Verdi. Yep, the legendary Joe Green himself.
Dwight really like some things without fail, like Beethoven, and condescended to pretty much everything else. Sounds like modern criticism.
I know we’ve been hard on old Dwight, and he deserves it, but in all fairness Dwight’s Journal is pretty cool. I recommend skimming through an edition or two. A blog post is up on our website that links to a free online version of the journal if you’re interested.
Dwight included reviews of performances in America, published letters from European correspondents, and wrote news about concertos being published by Beethoven or the premier of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, for instance. And the advertisements from the mid 19th century are fun to read too.
And when Dwight’s opinions just get too condescending and self righteous for your stomach to handle, just roll your eyes and realize that we all feel the same way.
Boston Handel and Haydn Society: A Christmas Concert in 1815
The opening Christmas anecdote at the beginning of the episode covered a real event, by the way. There was a time in the United States when classical concerts didn’t exist as we know them. Puritan culture, or lack thereof, encouraged only sacred music-making, the Moravians essentially confined their performances to their own cloisters, and some of the only properly trained classical musicians in the new World were church organists in major cities.
Do you remember the composer Johann Pachelbel, the guy who wrote the canon that you hear at every wedding? Well his son, Charles Theodore, turned up in Boston in the 1730s, and he eventually moved to Charleston, SC to be the organist at St. Philips church.
Anyways, classical music had some real barriers here in America. Citizens received most of their musical training through informal singing schools, and there wasn’t much of an emphasis on instrumental training. Also, the economy was pretty unstable, and music education and performance requires an affluent society. Or government funding.
Additionally, most Americans participated in music predominantly through sacred songs in church. Therefore the sacred work of Handel in one of his oratorios, for instance, may have appealed to them.
The problem was that Handel’s sacred music was basically too good for New England church-goer’s sensitivities. Here’s a quote from hymn writer Thomas Hastings.
“No one thinks of attending a religious meeting when he goes to the oratorio. He goes to a musical feast.”
So that concert we mentioned on Christmas day in 1815 really went out on a limb in a couple of different ways. First, it charged the attendees money–a whole $1. Secondly, it combined sacred music with a secular concert environment. How would the Bostonians react? Would they show up, enjoy the music, and want more of it? Or would it be a flop, and would the music go right over people’s heads?
It was a huge success. Over 1,000 people showed up, and they loved the stuff. Courtesy of historian Richard Crawford, we came across this quote from a concert-goer that appeared in a Boston newspaper:
“Those who are judges of the performance are unanimous in their declaration of its superiority to any ever before given in this town.” Notwithstanding the sanctity of the place and day, the excitements to loud applause were frequently irresistible . . . We have no language to do justice to the feelings.”
In short, the audience members weren’t sure if they should applaud or not because they were in a church, and the music was based on sacred texts. However, the emotion was overwhelming and they clapped anyways.
That evening, on the tail end of the War of 1812, the city of Boston took a major step forward for the arts in America. Serious music performance was about to break free from church services, and the Boston Handel and Haydn society introduced locals to something that they truly loved.
It turns out that Americans like classical music after all.
American Composers: Anthony Philip Heinrich
Let’s fast-forward three years to 1818. We aren’t in Boston anymore though–we are now in the wooded wilderness near Bardstown, Kentucky. In a log cabin, naturally.
The resident of this log cabin is a guy named Anthony Philip Heinrich, a Bohemian immigrant. Maybe you caught the irony there—Dvorak was also from Bohemia. I was surprised when I discovered that. It’s nice when elements of your story relate to each other without you even having to try.
Anthony Philip Heinrich moved to the U.S. in 1810 as a businessman, but Richard Crawford writes that the young immigrant lost his fortune because of a collapsed American economy and the Napoleonic Wars in Europe.
He was marooned in America without money, so he turned to music. Now there’s a sure sign of desperation.
He bounced from Philadelphia, to Pittsburgh, and then after his ensembles didn’t pan out the way he’d hoped, he settled in a secluded cabin in Kentucky and decided to be a composer. Just like that. He sounds like a pretty unique guy.
And by “decided to be a composer,” I mean that he really did just randomly decided to pursue composition. He had no compositional training, and his only formal music training had been as a child. He was essentially a self-taught violinist and composer.
He drew inspiration from nature and eventually wrote music for piano, violin, voice, and even orchestra. He also led the way in referencing Native American culture: one of his pieces was called “Pushmataha, a Venerable Chief of a Western Tribe of Indians.”
After Heinrich moved back to Boston, he received the following critical praise in the press:
“His works abound in boldness, originality, science, and even sublimity; and embrace all styles of composition, from a waltz or song up to the acme of chromatic frenzy.”
By “science,” the critics meant he followed form and common practice well. His music was by the book, in other words.
Unfortunately, Heinrich’s music was just too hard for fledgeling American ensembles to play. We’ve looked at prints of some of his scores–they’re difficult even by today’s standards.
His music was also harmonically complex compared to other music of his time, leading some journalists to refer to him as the “Beethoven of America. Heinrich even met with songwriter Thomas Moore to try and get some tips on commercial success. Moore’s answer to him?
“Your music lays so far beyond the capacity or powers of execution of any of our ordinary amateurs of music, that few will buy your copies. “You must throw a good deal more singsong into your works before you can expect them to succeed.”
Heinrich decided to stick with his creative impulses rather than pursue commercial success though. As a result, this critic’s assessment of his work in 1846 seems to be the story of his musical life.
“Heinrich is undoubtedly ahead of the age; and we believe that his music will be far more popular long after he is dead than now.”
We can probably all agree that those aren’t exactly the kinds of words a composer hopes to hear.
Louis Jullien and his Orchestra Perform “Santa Claus”
On Christmas Eve, 1853, Louis Jullien’s famous touring orchestra performed a piece called “Santa Claus” for a lively audience. It included narration, and naturally the character of Santa was represented by the Bassoon. The composer, American musician and music critic William Henry Fry, figured he had a hit on his hands.
Unfortunately, the New York press brushed the concert off as…
“A good Christmas piece, but hardly a composition to be gravely criticized like an earnest work of Art.”
By the way, we didn’t set out to create this episode with any kind of Christmas emphasis whatsoever. Timely relevance just kind of happens sometimes, like our opening narrative of a concert in Boston on Christmas day of 1815. I just thought I’d throw that out there.
So the press didn’t consider William Henry Fry’s Christmas piece to be musically important, and to make matters worse, this was just another episode in the life of a man who couldn’t earn the respect of critics in his own country.
Seven years prior to the Christmas Eve disappointment, William Henry Fry composed an opera called Leonora. He had this grand vision that his opera would be the first one composed by an American to find its way into the regular operatic repertoire. He saw himself among the likes of Bellini, Verdi, and Rossini.
He thought opening night went well, and the crowd seemed to enjoy it, but then the newspaper headlines started to appear. Among them was a line that went something like…
“Awful commotion among the sharps and flats.”
The review only got worse as it went along…
“The long agony is over. The child is christened, and ‘Alleghania” has at last an opera of its own–musical taste is on the ascendant, and native Mozarts yet unborn shall lisp with gratitude, in after ages, the mighty name of Fry. All were delighted with the music. It was so much like an old acquaintance in a new coat.”
Yikes. The critics laid right into Fry’s opera and originality, although it’s likely that none of them had ever composed anything at all. The crowds enjoyed it enough for a run of performances, but it’s hard for a composer to have any kind of lasting success when the press is so tough. Leonora faded into obscurity.
In Paris in 1846, William Henry Fry once tried to pay the Paris Opera to produce a rehearsal of Leonora. Just a rehearsal! The director’s response?
“In Europe, we look upon America as an industrial country–excellent for electric telegraphs, but not for Art . . .They would think me crazy to produce an opera by an American.”
Ouch again. Fry came from a wealthy family in Philadelphia–there’s a blog post coming about that, by the way–and he was a successful journalist and music correspondent, so he still had money and a career. But what he really wanted was to see American composers recognized as legitimate classical peers.
When he returned to the states, he decided to use his platform to educate people about classical music history and style. He thought that if people only understood music better, they would appreciate what he and other composers were creating. He wondered aloud why American authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe and James Fennimore Cooper could have so much international success while composers remained the butt of newspaper columnist’s jokes.
William Henry Fry didn’t see the success of American classical composers in his lifetime. He had to endure the fact that American composers sometimes came across as cheap ripoffs of the better European ones, and that journalists and the public ear weren’t ready to lend any credit where it was due in North America.
Someone had to do the dirty work though. Without William Fry fighting in the trenches during his lifetime, future American composers may never have seen any success at all.
For the record, Fry’s Santa Claus Symphony is actually a pretty fun piece. And it’s the first orchestral work to feature the classical saxophone.
American Classical Music: John Knowles Paine, George Chadwick, Amy Beach, and Edward MavDowell
Antonin Dvorak’s visit to the United States began in 1892, and his sojourn in the States is often remembered as the premier musical event in American music during that decade.
There was another far more American movement taking place during that time, though. Have you heard of John Knowles Paine, George W. Chadwick, Amy Beach, or Edward MacDowell? Well, they were all actual American composers, not highly paid mercenaries. And they had already been trying to create American music. They just didn’t have the luxury of being European.
This group of American composers, which is often referred to as the “Second New England School,” knew each other well. Historian Richard Crawford writes that the group would hang out at the same tavern on Saturday nights—except for Amy Beach of course, who was happily married and chose not to spend her weekends with a group of men. They would also promote each other’s success and hold each other’s egos in check.
John Knowles Paine, the venerable leader of the group, was born in 1839. He was a professor at Harvard. Chadwick and MacDowell, who were about 20 years younger than Paine, taught at the New England Conservatory and Columbia University, respectively. And Amy Beach, the baby of the group, was born in 1867. Apparently her “Gaelic Symphony” was such a success in 1896 that George Chadwick referred to her in his writings as “one of the boys.” We can assume that was meant as a compliment.
Amy Beach, by the way, was a child prodigy and the first significant female composer in North America. Rather, she was the first notable female composer. I guess I don’t want to imply that anyone is insignificant. That wouldn’t be nice.
This group, or the “Second New England School,” had a particular goal mind. They wanted to get away from a nagging comment used by critics that went something like this…
“Huh. Not bad for an American!”
George Chadwick, for his part, worked very hard to get that monkey off his back. He funded his own passage over to the Leipzig Conservatory, and after he had completed studies there, he studied in Munich. In Leipzig, he earned praise from the likes of Carl Reinecke:“Herr Chadwick possesses a completely exceptional talent for composition, as is sufficiently demonstrated by his work.”
While we will include a list of important Chadwick compositions on our website, the important thing for now is that he included elements in his music that people commonly attribute to Antonin Dvorak.
References to African-American spirituals? Check. Allusions to Native American culture and music? Check. Habanero influence? Yep, it’s in there. Add some Stephen Foster quotations and you’ve almost got George Chadwick’s music figured out. That sounds about as “American” is you can get. At least in my opinion.
And he wasn’t the only member of “the boys” to incorporate Native American influence. His contemporary, Edward MacDowell—he was the guy who became the head of Columbia University’s school of music—finished an orchestral work called the “Indian Suite” a full year before Dvorak wrote the New World Symphony. As you can imagine, MacDowell wasn’t too thrilled about Dvorak’s intrusion.
Anyways, we need to spend a few minutes with Amy Beach.
Amy Beach: the Composer’s Biography, Music, and Life
“Can a woman become a great composer? Will There ever be a female Beethoven or a Mozart?”
Louis Elson, a music critic based in Boston, Massachusetts, penned those questions in 1904. He obviously wasn’t familiar with Clara Schumann.Elson wasn’t taking a shot a female composers though. He continued with the following:
“We venture to believe that it has been insufficient musical education and male prejudice that have prevented female composers from competing with their male brethren in art.”
He ventured down that critical path with Amy Beach, a Boston resident and important composer, in mind. Amy Beach answered those questions with a career of her own.
Beach started composing when she was four years old. By the time she was a teenager, she was actually pretty good, and thanks to a stack of music theory books and scores that she pulled together, she was a full-fledged composer and performer by her young adult years.
Had she needed to, she could have made a living as a composer from a young age. She didn’t need to though, since her physician husband supported her artistic endeavors, but for all practical purposes, she was the first successful female composer in the New World.
Sadly, Amy Beach lost her husband and her mother in 1911. She, Amy Beach, was only 44.
She did her best with the hand she was dealt though, and she went on a European tour and then an American tour once WWI broke out. In all likelihood, her greatest musical and commercial success probably came during the latter half of her life.
She, more than anyone else during her time, promoted the dual cause of being a woman composer AND being an American composer. Both were tough at the time, but she pulled it off.
The “Boston Six” Didn’t Appreciate Dvorak’s Interference
Congrats, we’ve made it to the final section of today’s episode. Last time we talked about Dvorak and how his visit to the United States was a meaningful chapter in American music history. This week, we’ve given some examples of how America already had local music figures to support.
Now we get to see how the American composers, many of whom were ignored by their own countrymen, reacted to Dvorak’s statements.
First of all, some quick review on Dvorak.
A wealthy American benefactor paid him to come to the States in 1892 to lead the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He was tasked with helping establish a national American style of composition, and he publicly admonished American composers to draw from spirituals and native American influences.
Let’s get to the reactions.
Shortly after journalist James Creelman published quotes from Dvorak about the need for American composers to use folk music, a group of composers from the Second New England School wrote and published a lengthy response. Judith Tick published an excerpt by John Knowles Paine, the Harvard Professor we mentioned earlier, in her book called “Music in the USA.”
Paine’s first issue was simply that in his opinion, folk music wasn’t an important building block to classical music.
“Dvorak greatly overestimates the influence that national melodies and folksongs have exercised on the higher forms of musical art. In the case of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and other German masters, the old folk-songs have been used to a limited extent as motives; but movements founded on such themes are exceptional in comparison with the immense amount of entirely original thematic material that constitutes the bulk of their music.”
He continues to say, and I quote, “that the time is past when composers are to be classed according to geographical limits,” end quote. Paine also includes a twinge of the racism that was so prevalent during his day by referring to African American music as the, quote, “melodies of a yet largely undeveloped race.”
While his attitude towards Americans not of European descent was condescending and extremely wrong, he did make the point that you can’t box the concept of nationalistic American classical music into one or two classes of folksong heritage.
Paine then suggested that Dvorak obviously didn’t have any idea what American composers had already accomplished. This very well may be true. And here is one of John Knowles Paine’s final statements:
“It is incomprehensible to me how any thoroughly cultivated musician or musical critic can have such limited and erroneous views of the true functions of American composers. It is more than probable that Dr. Dvorak’s ture ideas on the subject have not been fully expressed or correctly reported…”
Edward MacDowell, who we described earlier as the composer of the Indian Suite and a professor at Columbia University, also took exception with Dvorak’s claims.
FIrst of all, MacDowell was annoyed that a Bohemian composer would come to America and tell composers on our shores what to do. That makes sense, although I would probably do the same thing if the benefactor behind a conservatory offered me as much money as Dvorak was offered.
Secondly, MacDowell found Dvorak’s so-called prescription for American music to be too simple to be viewed as true national art.
“Music that can be made by “recipe” is not music, but tailoring. To be sure, this tailoring may serve to cover a beautiful thought, but why cover it?”
Lastly, Dvorak’s formula seemed too restrictive to MacDowell. He wanted Americans to have artistic license to create wonderful music unencumbered by outside influence. After all, composers had been imitating European music for long enough, why should Americans simply choose another type of music to imitate?
Here was his solution:
“What we must arrive at is the youthful optimistic vitality and the undaunted tenacity of spirit that characterizes the American man. This is what I hope to see echoed in American Music.”
While I’m sure Amy Beach wondered why MacDowell’s views of American music were so man-centric, the spirit remains. He wanted freedom and tenacity. Dvorak didn’t offer that. In fact, you could argue that Dvorak didn’t have much influence on American classical music at all, at least as far as developing a national style is concerned.
What Dvorak did offer was hope and a huge vote of confidence for young African American composers in the US. We covered that last time.
And what about the American composers of the Second New England School, as well as many other US composers of the time?
Their music may not be played in concert halls today–at least not regularly–but the likes of Amy Beach, George Chadwick, and MacDowell made it possible for future American composers to make an impact on an international level.
And hey, we could even throw in a bit of a call to action here, right? I’m feeling pretty motivated to seek out some current American composers. There’s no reason we should only listen to old tunes and the same famous composers that everyone else listens to.
We have plenty of homegrown music, both classical and otherwise, right at our fingertips. We just have to find it.
This is Backstage Podcast.
Backstage this week was written by Adam Gingery and narrated by Justen Blackstone. As always, music and production is by Vyking, who actually just put out a brand new album! The name of the album is “Message” and you can get it for free on Amazon, Noisetrade, or Spotify. Just search “Vyking Message”, that’s V-Y-K-I-N-G message.
As you know, we have to do a lot of research to create these episodes. Great research requires great sources. One source that we recently came across and love is Informusic.
Informusic is the all-in-one music history resource that provides biographical information, program notes, sheet music, audio examples, and interactive timelines that allow users to contextualize musical events with other disciplines such as art, history, politics, and more. Get it on the ios app store today!
Also, we are still waiting for your emails, yes you, telling us about your crazy classical music experiences. Might be a funny teacher, audition, horrible concert, or just a cool story you think we should know. We also would love to hear any comments, complaints, or feedback about our shows as well. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also published on Medium.