George Whitefield Chadwick, Rip Van Winkle Overture

By Byron Adams, University of California, Riverside

Written for the concert Revisiting William Grant Still, performed on March 22, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Although one of his biographers has referred to him as a “common man,” George Whitefield Chadwick, while hardly cutting a romantic figure, possessed an intriguingly contradictory and complicated personality that was far from ordinary. He came from New England yeoman stock, but, despite a limited formal education, rose to become the director of the New England Conservatory. Unusual for the period, Chadwick was simultaneously enamored of Brahms and Wagner, but his own Italianate operas can best be described as “Yankee verismo.” Chadwick composed symphonies that followed the Beethovenian models that he had assimilated as a student in Germany, but he was surprisingly interested in contemporary French music, especially that of Debussy. Indeed, Chadwick’s finest works, such as the evergreen Symphonic Sketches (1904) are filled with echoes of American vernacular music—including ragtime and vaudeville songs—that lend these pieces a vitality lacking in his self-consciously “European” scores.

Chadwick’s personality was an admixture of Yankee toughness, irascibility, and endearing humor. However, the contradictions that mark his aesthetics and personality are found in a disturbing form in his racial convictions. On the one hand, Chadwick revered his Jewish teacher at Leipzig, Salomon Jadassohn, but feared that the influx of Jewish immigrants to the United States would dilute the purity of the Anglo-Celtic traditions that he believed to be fount of authentic American musical values. As the composer’s biographer, Victor Fell Yellin, has tactfully remarked, “The very process of immigration, which [Chadwick’s opera] The Padrone sympathetically examined, was to be the cause of a gap in the continuity of American musical history between older composers of Yankee stock and young modernists, many of whom were first- or second-generation immigrants.” Furthermore, Chadwick was capable of noting “BDW”—for “Born Dat Way”—on the file of an African-American student at the New England Conservatory, while teaching and greatly encouraging William Grant Still.

Chadwick nailed his American colors to the mast early in his career by composing the concert overture Rip Van Winkle in 1879 as his “graduation piece” from the Leipzig Conservatory. The usually severe German music critics looked with favor upon this lively work, and both Jadassohn and Carl Reinecke, director of the Leipzig Conservatory, praised their brash American student. Indeed, Chadwick, who was just twenty-five years old when he completed Rip Van Winkle, evinces an admirable formal poise as well as a precocious mastery of orchestral timbre. (At the New England Conservatory, Chadwick was the first American pedagogue to dedicate a course solely to the art and science of orchestration.) Chadwick drew his inspiration in part from Washington Irving’s famous Hudson River Valley tale of 1809, and in part from a popular stage adaptation of Irving’s story that had been tailored for the comic actor Joseph Jefferson. Whatever the initial impetus, the tale of Rip Van Winkle’s long nap drew some lively music from the young Yankee composer. After an introductory cello solo that recalls the opening of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Chadwick aptly limns the outline of Irving’s story with music of warmth, color, and considerable panache.