At his death, George W. Chadwick was hailed by Olin Downes in the New York Times as "the dean of American composers"; for fifty years he had been a vital figure in American music life--active as conductor, organist, teacher, innovative Director of the New England Conservatory, and especially as a composer. Chadwick created a voluminous oeuvre in every medium, ranging far more widely in style and genre–from the most serious symphony to light-hearted comic opera–than any American composer of his day. A master orchestrator, some of his finest music is contained in roughly thirty orchestral compositions–overtures, tone-poems, symphonies, and suites. At the same time he was a superb composer of chamber music, as his five string quartets and piano quintet bear witness. Many of his songs, numbering over one hundred, appeared regularly on recitals, and his choral works were staples at the large choral festivals that dotted the landscape during the three or four decades before the First World War.
In the spring of 1877, Chadwick went to Leipzig, where he studied with Jadassohn, Richter, and Reinecke from late 1877 to the spring of 1879, while reveling in the musical life there–the concerts at the Gewandhaus (he heard the world premiere of Brahms's Violin Concerto) and the choral singing at the Thomasschule. Chadwick became the toast of the Leipzig Conservatory with a series of works written while he was there, his first two string quartets and the concert overture Rip Van Winkle, which was performed at the graduation exercises. For the academic year of 1879-1880 Chadwick went to Munich to study with Rheinberger. By the time he returned to Boston in the spring of 1880, he was welcomed as the composer of Rip Van Winkle, which had already been performed twice in the city. Chadwick remained one of the principal ornaments of Boston's musical life for the next half-century.
Already hailed as a composer on the moment of his return from Germany, Chadwick was active also as an organist, teacher, and conductor. He directed the Springfield Festival and the Worcester Festival for a number of years, and from 1897 became the dynamic and innovative Director of the New England Conservatory, a position he retained until shortly before his death on April 4, 1931.
By the time of his death Chadwick felt himself out of step with the musical world. Popular music had changed drastically with the ragtime craze and the development of jazz. The musical theater had abandoned the operetta style, designed for trained singers, in favor of the new musical comedy conceived for comics who could carry a tune and dance. The opera houses paid little attention to Americans. American orchestras remained in the hands of foreign conductors, and even though a few of them–like Serge Koussevitzky in Boston–expressed an interest in American music, they did it by means of a new generation of composers, among them Aaron Copland, who seemed to Chadwick to deny many of the musical verities by which he had lived. In recent years, though, as the musico-political battles of past generations recede, Chadwick's music is starting to be performed and recorded again, allowing us to hear the work of a gifted composer who sought to blend the elements that had attracted him to symphonic writing–high seriousness and sense of purpose combined with the luxuriance of rich orchestral sound–with elements that declared his allegiance as an American: energy and high spirits, love of a good tune, a sense of humor, and a jaunty Yankee feeling of (in the words of Olin Downes) "snapping his fingers at the universe."
Any American composer who desired to write a symphony in the closing decades of the nineteenth century confronted a dilemma: the models of procedure all came from German and Austrian composers, Beethoven above all and, of the later composers, Brahms. The kinds of musical themes, the architectonic structure, the elevated and abstract nature of the musical discourse all came from the repertory performed by symphony orchestras, and whether those orchestras were in Vienna or Berlin, London, New York, or Boston, the repertory was largely German.
Chadwick's first two symphonies were relatively early works. He completed the First, in C, in November 1881, and conducted the Harvard Musical Association orchestra in the first performance on February 23, 1882. Apparently that work has never been performed since, though it had been received with considerable enthusiasm. Chadwick may have withheld the piece simply because he felt that his Second Symphony, in B-flat (1883-86), was greatly superior. Indeed, late in his life he noted in his family memoir that the second movement of the B-flat symphony, Allegretto scherzando, struck him as the earliest composition in which he had become fully himself. The Second Symphony entered the repertory at once and was performed widely for many years.
Not until 1891 did he begin another symphony. During his summer vacation in Orford, New Hampshire, he concentrated on a cantata, Phoenix Expirans, for the next year's May festival in Springfield and began collecting ideas for a new symphony.
The Orford air was certainly stimulating to production. Almost every day after the Phoenix was finished I got a new motive or at least a rithmical [sic] or color scheme--all sorts of things, and after a while I began a new Symphony. As usual I began with the middle movements, and the themes of the Andante and Scherzo were the first to be worked out. I had heard my B-flat Sym enough times to know what to avoid. (Memoir, 1891)
Work on the symphony was interrupted by a commission to write a large festival ode to be performed under the direction of Chadwick's early idol, Theodore Thomas (who was to be the dedicatee of the Third Symphony), at the opening festivities of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But by March 1893 he could write to an old friend confidentially, "I have a new Symphony in F major well under way." Chadwick and his family bought a summer home on Martha's Vineyard in 1893, and there he finished the sketching of the new symphony and began scoring it on August 1. He was determined to finish the work in time to enter it in a competition for a $300 prize offered by the National Conservatory in New York, of which Antonin Dvoéák had become the Director.
It had to be sent in before Oct 1, so I dropped work on Tabasco [a comic opera], which I had hardly begun, and wrote industriously at the score until I finished it, which was before we left West Chop. To save time and expense, I wrote it "off the bat" in ink and as far as I can judge it is none the worse for it. I had been so long composing it--at least two years--and made such careful sketches that I did not need to make any pencil studies. And I won the prize. It was awarded by the next April, and I was notified of it by Dvorák himself. It was too late for a performance that season, but Pauer [Emil Paur, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra] expressed much interest in it, and it was played at the 2d concert of 1894. (Memoir, 1893)
Chadwick himself conducted the premiere:
My Symphony in F major was performed by the B.S.O. on Oct 22/'94. Paur was very much interested in it and gave me all the time I wanted for rehearsal. He wanted to make a cut in the coda of the scherzo for which I saw no need, and I did so to please him, but I restored it after the first performance. The orchestra and all the musicians agreed that this was my best work so far. Of course, it does show the influence of Brahms in places, but I think that it was more noticeable at that time than at present. (Memoir, 1894)
This was the major score that Chadwick took with him in 1905 when he returned to Germany for a year, visiting many of his old haunts and, in particular, giving a concert of his music at Leipzig, where a local critic decreed, "From this symphony, I hold George W. Chadwick to be the most important living Anglo-American composer–Edward Elgar not excepted."