Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930, performed on Oct 22, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The American Symphony Orchestra, founded by Leopold Stokowski as a way of supporting American instrumentalists and composers, is pleased to begin its thirty-fifth season by presenting a program devoted to American music. The program we have chosen offers a wide spectrum of American music from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all works closely associated with New York City. These compositions demonstrate the trials and triumphs experienced by American musicians who were committed to the enterprise of fashioning an American musical culture which could hold its own without apology against the daunting legacy of Europe–particularly German-speaking Europe, where all of the composers in tonight’s program pursued their musical education.

It is a truism to assert that by comparison to its European counterparts, America is a young nation. This country’s relative youthfulness, combined with the fact that it evolved substantially as a nation of immigrants, helped frame an issue that plagued American artists through the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century: how might the distinctly American be defined and expressed? Was there and could there be a unique American counterpart to European cultural achievement in literature, painting, and music? If the voluntary and involuntary immigrants who came to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought with them defined cultural heritages, discrete languages and societal traditions, what then would emerge, culturally speaking, from their interactions and their future in the new world? In literature, most American writers suffered from a peculiarly American form of what Harold Bloom has terms the “anxiety of influence”: the world of English letters was never far from the consciousness of American writers. Some, like Poe, James, and Wharton, mastered the greatest traditions of European fiction. But a distinctly American voice could also be discerned as the nation matured through the nineteenth into the twentieth century, particularly in the works of Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Cather, and Faulkner. That, however, did not dampen the sensibility that Europe remained the source an showcase of the highest literary achievement and refinement. One only needs to think of the many American writers who lived as expatriates in Europe during the twentieth century to remind ourselves of the persistent insecurity and ambivalence felt by many about American culture. The anglophilia of T.S. Eliot, for example, was an extreme incarnation of such cultural snobbery.

If the English language shared by Americans made identity a difficult issue for American writers, the American landscape did not make matters easier for American painters. Despite the achievements of the Hudson River school, American painters, perhaps until Abstract Expressionism in the mid-twentieth century, felt themselves in the shadow of both European traditions and European contemporaries. When we consider the canvases of Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, or Childe Hassam, our minds tend to drift immediately to the more famous contemporary French exponents of Impressionism. Even the work of the Ashcan school seems less interesting to us than historically parallel European movements. Twentieth-century modernism began as a European phenomenon. Decades later, when we look at the work of Burgoyne Diller from the 1930s, we easily detect the European influence, in this case of Piet Mondrian. Only in the 1940s did American art begin to seem distinctive to both American and European eyes.

In the area of music the circumstances tell a somewhat different story. In music, the influence of immigration would make its first and deepest mark on forms that would emerge as definitely American. That creative transformation is most evident in such phenomena as ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and jazz. In large measure as a result of the influence of African Americans, by the end of the nineteenth century America had already developed original forms of popular music. But genteel music, both in the salon and in the concert hall, suffered profoundly–even more than music’s literary and cultural counterparts–from comparisons with Europe. In the arenas in which Europeans excelled–concert music–a uniquely American contribution developed more gradually and haltingly. Americans still remain suspicious of the capacity of a European art form based on aristocratic patronage to adapt to populist American circumstances. Concert music, more than painting and literature, still seems associated with the pretentious aspects of the ambition to become “cultured” in some vaguely undemocratic way.

When Antonin Dvorák came to take over the National Conservatory in New York in 1892, he urged American musicians to turn to African American and Native American roots to find a distinct voice (he was spurred on by the New York critic Henry Krehbiel). Dvorák ’s sense that American composers were too wedded to European models was well-founded. Two of the composers on this program, Edward MacDowell and George Chadwick, were typical. Their works reflect the indispensable European training that American composers of that era felt they needed. After studying in Europe, both of these men returned to America to teach: MacDowell at Columbia, and Chadwick at the New England Conservatory in Boston. The prestige of their work was enhanced by the fact that Chadwick had been a student of Jadassohn in Leipzig and Rheinberger in Munich, and MacDowell had studied with Joachim Raff in Frankfurt and Louis Ehlert in Wiesbaden. MacDowell’s career as a teacher and performer in Europe and his appearance before Franz Liszt lent him a special aura among Americans. Nevertheless, these composers tried to assert in the formats of the European symphony and concerto, an American sensibility, particularly in the use of construction of themes. Chadwick’s first works, particularly the concert overture Rip Van Winkle, despite its overtly American program, were embraced with enthusiasm in Europe as American realizations of European models. Given Dvorák ’s plea, it is ironic that the symphony by Chadwick on this program was chosen by Dvorák himself to receive the coveted prize of the National Conservatory in 1894.

MacDowell’s and Chadwick’s audible debt to their German mentors is pervasive, but when one turns to what is conceivably the other end of the scale in that era–the music of Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern, one realized that the gulf between so-called popular and serious music was no so great as it is today, and that the character of the melodies, the orchestral sound, and more ephemerally, the mood of all the music on tonight’s program can be perceived as emerging from a single source. That source is precisely the crossroads between the effort to be American and yet competitive with European standards. Victor Herbert was born in Ireland and educated in Germany, and came to America as a result of his wife Therese Foerster’s engagement at the Metropolitan Opera. Herbert played in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and began to conduct and write his own music. Like many immigrants, he became enamored of the peculiarities of American life and landscape and wrote all sorts of music ranging from marches to film scores (including The Fall of a Nation).

Herbert’s greatest achievements, however, were in the arena of popular musical theater. He wrote more than forty operettas, most of which had their premieres on Broadway. The most famous of these is Babes in Toyland (1903), based indirectly on L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Immigration itself was the focus of some of Herbert’s popular work; Naughty Marietta is about the relationship between an immigrant Italian girl and a man from Kentucky. Eileen, originally entitled The Heart of Erin (1917), is typically American in its self-conscious assertion of American-Irish solidarity with Ireland. Mademoiselle Modiste takes on another favorite subject also treated by Henry James (who played it out in a different social class and very different context): the relationship between a rich American man and a young Parisian woman. Herbert, a founding member of ASCAP, was an indefatigable popularizer of music and a staunch advocate of American composers and musicians. Using the same artistic heritage as MacDowell and Chadwick, he ventured to adapt another European model, the operetta, and create a bridge between American popular music of the nineteenth century and a different European tradition, equally indebted to concert music. His music clearly shows the skills of a composer well-trained in nineteenth-century European compositional strategies.

When one thinks of the influence of the Jewish immigration of the late nineteenth century to New York City on American popular musical culture, one thinks first of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. The patterns and sensibilities of the Eastern European Yiddish song seemed to be eminently adaptable to the world of early twentieth-century New York. But in American musical theater specifically, it was the earlier German-Jewish immigration to New York that played a decisive role. Oscar Hammerstein II’s grandfather, who founded the Manhattan Opera House, was born in what today is Poland, but which at the time of his birth was part of Germany. His formative years were spend in Hamburg, and he came to New York sometime around 1860. His grandson would collaborate with another musician of German Jewish descent who was born in New York, Jerome Kern. Kern also felt compelled to go to Europe for further training and chose to receive his advanced musical education in Heidelberg. Ironically, a larger number of his songs became popular as added numbers in American productions of European operettas.

It is a paradox in the evolution of an American music that what we now consider quintessentially American in spirit was developed by those who had every reason to consider themselves outsiders. Immigrants and t heir children articulated the sounds and styles on the stage that we now associate with Mississippi, Oklahoma, and the West. Two descendant of German Jewish immigrants wrote “Ol’ Man River” and other icons of vernacular American music. Jerome Kern’s greatest achievement was Showboat from 1927, a work which deals explicitly with America’s identity as a nation of contentious cultural intersections. Partly influenced by the very same compositional ambitions that compelled MacDowell and Chadwick, Kern pioneered the development of the American musical as an integrated form, with a coherent musical trajectory from beginning to end. He rejected the model of musical theater as a medley of disparate, popular songs. Despite the immense success which both Herbert and Kern achieved in popular mediums, however, they never lost the desire to make their mark in the hallowed European tradition of concert music, the world from which MacDowell and Chadwick never departed. Like George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, despite their successes, Herbert and Kern suspected they would only be vindicated in the eyes of history if they succeeded as “serious” composers. To that end, Kern agreed in 1914 to the creation of an orchestral suite from Showboat entitled “Scenario.”

All of the music on tonight’s program has a direct association with the cultural life of New York City. MacDowell, a pivotal force in the music department of Columbia University, was lionized by New York society. Chadwick, although based in Boston, achieved the singular honor of being recognized by Dvorák in New York. The tradition of Broadway and the American musical theater in New York owes much to Herbert and Kern. But to the credit of both American concert and popular music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the distance between Tin Pan Alley–the center of sheet music publishing in New York–which a century about was located between 14th and 28th Streets, and the more refined reaches of Morningside Heights or Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera, was, as I hope tonight’s performance demonstrates, far narrower than we might at first glance imagine. Perhaps as this century comes to a close, we will once again witness a new incarnation of the inspired creative influence of immigration on the arts in America and a convincing cross-fertilization between popular and concert music.

Symphony No. 3 in F major (1894)

By Steven Ledbetter

Written for the concert Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930, performed on Oct 22, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

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.”

Selections from Operettas

By Steven Ledbetter

Written for the concert Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930, performed on Oct 22, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Victor Herbert was born to Irish parents in Dublin. His grandfather was also a celebrated Irish artist, the multi-talented Samuel Lover, who was active as a poet, painter, novelist, and composer. It was in his grandfather’s home that Herbert first heard a great cellist, Alfredo Carlo Piatti, whose playing later inspired the boy to take up that instrument as his own. When his widowed mother married a German physician, the family moved to Stuttgart, and Herbert grew up there, intending at first to follow his stepfather’s profession. But the call of music was too strong. By the age of seventeen he was already earning his living as a cellist. He spend one year as a member of the private orchestra of an immensely rich Russian baron, Paul von Derwies, and a second year in the orchestra of Eduard Strauss, a young brother of the famous waltz king, Johann, in Vienna. There he absorbed completely the Viennese musical style that so imbued the many waltz songs that he was to write in his future operettas. (This is particularly clear if one listened to Herbert’s own Edison recordings of the waltz numbers from his operettas, where he imbues the dance with that particular Viennese lilt that one rarely hears from orchestras in other places.) At the age of twenty-two, Herbert decided to return to the Stuttgart Conservatory to study composition. His earlier surviving work (identified by its composer as “Opus 3”) is a suite in five movements for cello and orchestra that established him at once as a composer of concertos for the cello and of music that could appeal to a popular audiences for its sheer tunefulness.

It was the merest accident that brought Victor Herbert to America, an accident in which Cupid played no small part. The young composer had become engaged to a soprano, Therese Foerster, at the Stuttgart Opera. When she was approached by envoys from the Metropolitan Opera to sing the first Aida in the United States (in German!), she agreed, on the condition that her husband-to-be also be given employment. Herbert was hired as the principal cellist in the Met Orchestra. When the newlyweds arrived in New York on October 24, 1886, the press made much of the Metropolitan’s new star. No one could have predicted that, within a decade, she would have retired from the stage and her modest and unknown husband would be one of the most famous musicians in America.

Mademoiselle Modiste (1905) is set in Paris and tells the story of Fifi, a charming young French girl working in a hat shop, but dreaming of a career on the stage. One day, when she is alone in the ship, a rich and eccentric American bumbles in. He finds Fifi pert and charming, and when she tells him of her lifelong ambition, she does so in a wonderful number that serves as a kind of “audition” piece, because she shows him exactly how she would play three very different kinds of roles, if given the opportunity. the last of these has become one of the most famous of all of Herbert’s melodies under the title “Kiss Me Again,” and it is often performed by itself as a love song. But that denies the listener the opportunity to hear the entire charming scene. Fritzi Scheff objected that “Kiss Me Again” was too low for her soprano voice, but Herbert persuaded her that she need barely whisper the opening lines to achieve the kind of intoxicating effect that the song demanded.

The first Herbert show that could justifiably be called a sensational success was The Fortune Teller of 1898. Set in Hungary and telling the tale of two women who look very much alike (they were played by the same actress, Alice Nielsen, the first star to be made by Herbert’s music), one a ballerina in Budapest, the other a gypsy fortune teller. Naturally there are all kinds of mix-ups between the two look-alikes, and they eventually use their physical similarity to extricated themselves from unwanted imbroglios and to find true love. The overture to the operetta is a medley with three of the principal tunes of the operetta (though it by no means exhausts them): the waltz song “The Nightingale and the Star,” “The Gypsy Love Song,” sung in the show by the baritone lead, Sandor, and Victor Herbert’s successful attempt to match Johann Strauss’s famous csárdás in Die Fledermaus with an equal Hungarian verve.

Musically, the richest of all Victor Herbert operettas, Naughty Marietta (1910) has been successfully revived in recent years (by the New York City Opera, though with a somewhat rewritten book). Its performance by an opera company is entirely appropriate, because it was originally mounted by such a company. In April 1910 the Metropolitan Opera had paid Oscar Hammerstein $1,250,000, to close his Manhattan Opera Company, which was providing too much competition. Hammerstein had to agree to refrain from producing grand opera for ten years. Having on his payroll an entire cast of first-rate singers, a large chorus, and a full orchestra, Hammerstein chose instead to produce a lavish operetta with a score by Victor Herbert. The quality of the available forces (including a tenor who had sung the title role in Parsifal the year before, and a brilliant Italian coloratura soprano, Emma Trentini), gave the composer the freedom to write far more difficult solos and more complex ensembles than he might have dared otherwise. And he let himself go! The plot is set in old New Orleans about 1780, when the city was still ruled by France. The title character is an aristocratic young lady, charming and willfully capricious. In order to avoid an unwanted marriage she has run away to the New World under the name Marietta, disguising herself as one of a group of penniless young “casquet girls” whom the government has shipped to New Orleans with a small box representing their total dowry, in order to provide wives for the settlers of New France.

When a reward is offered for the missing French countess, Marietta joins the troupe of an Italian puppeteer, pretending to be his son (an unlikely masquerade at best!). At the end of the first act, she entices the audience to the puppet show by singing the “Italian Street Song,” one of the most brilliant and best-loved soprano showpieces from the entire history of American operetta. (The arrangement to be heard here was made by Herbert’s associate George Trinkhaus, who was, with Herbert, one of the original members of ASCAP in 1914.)

Showboat: A Scenario

By Steven Ledbetter

Written for the concert Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930, performed on Oct 22, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Probably the majority of operettas and musical comedies before 1927 were based on original plots, though some (like Die Fledermaus) were adaptations of theatrical comedies. But no one had ever attempted a popular musical version of a serious novel. But Jerome Kern had been fascinated by Edna Ferber’s sprawling family saga covering three generations that lived and worked on a steamboat with its own on-board theater plying the Mississippi River, and he arranged to be introduced to the author at the opening night of his show Criss Cross, October 12, 1926, to get her permission to make a musical version. Actually, he had already told Oscar Hammerstein to buy a copy of the book and plan a dramatic outline, while he did the same. They compared their respective plans, which were surprisingly similar, and set happily to work.

During the ensuing year Kern and, even more his producer Florenz Ziegfeld, were nervous about the show’s prospects. Ziegfeld, in particular, felt that it would kill the evening to have the female lead, Magnolia, marry the charming gambler Gaylord Ravenal so early in the play. He wrote to Kern:

[Hammerstein’s] present lay-out too serious. Not enough comedy. After marriage remember your love interest is eliminated. No one on earth, Jerry, knows musical comedy better than you and you yourself told me you would not risk a dollar on it. If Hammerstein will fix the book I want to do it.

In the end, Hammerstein (and Kern) won over the flamboyant producer, partly through the device of labeling the show a “an American musical play” rather than a “musical comedy.” What made Show Boat so different–and so much a model for the highest aspirations of Broadway composers for decades afterwards–was written by critic Arthur B. Waters on the basis of the pre-Broadway tryouts in Philadelphia and Cleveland:

There have been a number of note-worthy operettas during the last few seasons which have attained a high level of excellence, but “Show Boat” is not simply an operetta, though Jerome Kern’s distinguished score can easily be ranked with the best of them. No, [it] has many of the finer attributes of musical comedy, operetta, even of revue, with a definite suggestion of legitimate drama that is not dragged in by the heels and never falls into the customary mawkish channels that mistake bathos for pathos.

At some point following the hugely successful opening of the show, Kern authorized the creation of a symphonic “scenario,” crafted by Charles Miller. The description of this symphonic medley as a “scenario” implies that it follows, in some sense, the plot of the musical. What it offers mostly, though, is a reminder–and only that!–of the extraordinary wealth of musical ideas contained in the show. How rare to find a single evening in the musical theater presenting a good half-dozen hit songs, to say nothing of another half-dozen the function effectively within their theatrical context! The “scenario” begins and ends with the single most famous and most impressive song in the show, “Ol’ Man River”; it continues with two other songs associated with the black characters in the show–“Can’t help lovin’ dat man” and “Cotton Blossom.” The medley continues with three numbers connected to the central love story, “Make Believe,” “You are love,” and the Finale to Act I, in which Magnolia and Gaylord are married. Like the novel, the musical play covers a long period of time, and Kern employs actual and invented “period numbers” to suggest the passage of time between scenes. “In Dahomey,” which comes next in the medley, was an imaginative recreation, a tribute to the Will Marion Cook show of the same name, which had been the first successful black show on Broadway (and which Kern had seen in its extraordinarily successful London run in the fall of 1903). The medley closes with another love song, “Why do I love you,” and the continuing theme of the play and the novel, “Ol’ man river.”

In Show Boat, Kern’s music flows and develops (as one early critic noted) with a flexibility and a dramatic insight that suggest the possibility of a “leit-opera”–that is, a musical-theatrical work with the kind of consistency and coherence found in Wagnerian opera. On the whole, that prediction has scarcely been borne out; with the exception of a handful of important later shows (one might suggest of Carousel, The Most Happy Fella, West Side Story, and Sweeney Todd), few shows aspired to the heights of Show Boat, and even fewer reached them.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 23

By Steven Ledbetter

Written for the concert Uptown/Downtown: American Music 1880-1930, performed on Oct 22, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

There were American composers of concert music before the twentieth century, and gradually they have been making their way back in to the repertory and onto recordings in the last two decades. Names like Paine, Chadwick, Foote, Beach, and Loeffler, which were almost entirely forgotten at mid-century have started coming back into our ken. The members of this group came from Boston, or studied there, or lived their adult lives there. The one figure linked with them, who was for a time the most famous of all, and called flatly the “greatest American composer” was Edward MacDowell. This is, to a certain degree, ironic, because MacDowell’s music, though warmly imaginative and brilliant, bore virtually no traits of Americanism. That is hardly surprising, since he completed virtually all of his studies in Europe and lived there until 1888, by which time he had already composed his major works for orchestra. (After returning to the United States, he wrote mostly songs and piano pieces, and these do, occasionally, begin to suggest American motifs.)

MacDowell studied piano with Carl Heymann but also advanced composition with Joachim Raff, the Director of the conservatory and a long-time friend of Franz Liszt’s. Indeed, it was through Liszt that MacDowell was able to get a performance of his First Piano Concerto in 1882, soon after its completion. But almost at once after that, Raff died, thus depriving MacDowell of a warmly supportive influence (Raff had even predicted–correctly, as it turns out–that MacDowell’s music would continue to be performed after his own was forgotten). For several years MacDowell remained in Germany, though he received a growing string of visitors from America who reported to him the growing music life in the United States. Without the Raff-Liszt connection, MacDowell could not get his Second Piano Concerto performed (most concert venues regarded it as too “Lisztian” and thus dangerous), so he finally decided to return to the United States. He settled in Boston for eight years, but it was in New York that he performed the concerto, which has remained his best-known large-scale composition.

The move to America began a decade that seemed filled with successes, starting with the very successful premiere of his Second Piano Concerto (which remains his best-known large-scale work) with Theodore Thomas and his orchestra in New York on March 5, 1889. H.E. Krehbiel wrote in the New York Tribune, “It is a splendid composition, so full of poetry, so full of vigor as to tempt the assertion that it must be placed at the head of all works of its kind produced by either a native or an adopted citizen of America.” Rarely had an American composer been especially celebrated to this degree.

Privately MacDowell was beginning to withdraw from the world. He was a man of wide reading and artistic interests, and one would expect him to thrive amidst the artistic social clubs of Boston with other like-minded men, especially when they had always treated him the greatest generosity and respect, and with a singular lack of envy for his triumphs. But Chadwick’s unpublished family memoir gives a somewhat different picture:

MacDowell came to Boston in the fall of 1888. He took a small house in West Cedar St. and at once became the fashion as a piano teacher. B.J. Lang found him very “difficile,” although I am sure his efforts were meant in all kindness. With me, MacD was very frank & companionable for a time. He and Mrs. often came to our house, and we had many long walks, rides, and talks together. Of others he was suspicious and shy. It was difficult to get him to commit himself on any subject except publishers and royalties. From these he was absolutely convinced that we were all getting a raw deal. He disliked some of our friends, especially Arthur Whiting, who was a bit too witty for him. He had a subtle vein of irony of his own, but he was very careful of its use among strangers.

MacDowell’s desire for privacy, as it seemed at first, evidently hid the beginnings of a more serious mental condition. He was named the first professor of music at Columbia University, which motivated a move to New York City. There he worked with great diligence, to the point of exhaustion, and rarely deigning to speak to the composers, like Chadwick with whom one might think that he would have much in common. Writing with the advantage of hindsight twenty years later, Chadwick said:

At the time I felt very much hurt about it, but time has explained many things that I did not then understand, and I can now see that it could hardly have been otherwise. Poor Mac! The shadows were undoubtedly beginning to gather, although so gradually and slowly that no one, not even his wife or [his close friend George Templeton] Strong could suspect it.

MacDowell returned from a sabbatical in the fall of 1903 to find that Columbia’s new president, Nicholas Murray Butler, had linked the music classes with courses in Columbia’s Teachers College. Butler and MacDowell had never seen eye to eye, and they grew increasingly antagonistic as the year progressed. Their disagreements became a matter of public knowledge in the press, and MacDowell announced his resignation at the end of the 1903-04 school year. Apparently in March 1903, to make matters worse, he was injured in an accident when he was run over by a hansom cab, and this may have brought on his mental illness. By December 1904 the signs were evident, and in the course of the following year he regressed to a childlike state with occasional periods of rationality. He spent his last days in institutional care. But he remained a well-known composer, and when the United States government issued the very first stamps ever to bear the images of composers–in the 1940s–MacDowell was the only classical composer included in the group, along with Stephen Foster, Victor Herbert, and a few others.