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The ‘Boston Boys’

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The birth of an American style of music in late-nineteenth-century America

10 March 2018

George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter are just a few famous American composers of the twentieth century, but who is still acquainted with their nineteenth-century precursors? In his 1931 book Our American Music, John Howard divides American music into three periods with the following metaphor (Yudkin, 2008): a Greek muse finding a wilderness in America (1620-1800), proceeding to clear the forest (1800-1860), and then building a home (from 1860 onwards). In this essay, we shall have a look at some of the composers responsible for building that metaphorical home: the Second New England School. Specifically, we shall discuss how they made the first steps towards an American style, how they viewed the question of nationalism in music, and how these views were influenced by their Boston milieu.

To explain the emergence of an American school of composition, we first need to go back in time to explore the larger nineteenth-century socio-cultural context. At the start of the nineteenth century, the United States of America were still in full territorial expansion, only incorporating the West coast around 1850. While the Americans were literally gaining ground, Howard’s sylvan metaphor is also fitting in a musical context, as the first half of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of concert societies in Boston: the clearing of the forest. The Handel and Haydn Society, for example, was co-founded by Gottlieb Graupner in 1815, a German oboist who had played under Haydn in London. These organisations were predominantly middle-class, as music was deemed inappropriate for the social elite, but this changed from the 1830s (Broyles, 1991). Their original ideals of edifying the masses were gradually abandoned, and by the Civil War (1861-1865), art music was therefore the domain of a small yet educated public.

The Civil War saw the first proper mixing of people from different regions of the country, and went hand in hand with a sentimental romanticism and growing patriotism (further increased by the centennial celebrations of 1876); thirdly, private wealth of the rubber barons rose steeply after the war, creating the desire amongst the new rich for European art (Strubble, 1995) and the necessary capital for investment in the arts. With these conditions, and the existence of the music societies mentioned previously, the time was ripe to build Howard’s metaphorical home. There was already regional, demography-dependent popular music of various kinds, and entertainment music, but with a few exceptions, there were no noteworthy American composers. One such exception had been the First New England School, a group of singing-masters in Boston in the late eighteenth century (Strubble, 1995).

In addition, many musicians were European by birth, and especially often German (Levy, 1984). Due to the absence of proper higher musical education, young talents were almost forced to study in Europe. Germany was the destination of choice, with Berlin, Leipzig and Munich the most popular cities (Levy, 1984). This was also the case for John Knowles Paine (1839-1906), George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931), Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) and Horatio Parker (1863-1919). Together with Arthur Foote (1853-1937), who did not go to Europe, but studied with Paine, and Amy Beach (1867-1944), they form the core of a group of more or less Boston-based composers most often denoted as the Second New England School. Chadwick, who instead spoke affectionately of the “Boston Boys”, included Beach as “one of the boys” even though her gender meant she had quite a different career path from her male counterparts (Burkat, 2001).

Before discussing some aspects of their compositional style and ideals, we should mention that several of these composers were of paramount importance for the elevation of music in American society (Chase, 1955). Their music was widely played and they were highly respected, and additionally, they were instrumental in establishing rigorous musical curricula (Broyles, 1998). Paine was the first professor of music at Harvard University, Parker became the director of the School of Music at Yale University, MacDowell the head of the newly founded music department at Columbia University in New York, and Chadwick the director of the New England Conservatory (Hsu, 2012; Taruskin, n.d.). Although they had been educated in Germany, the practice of establishing music departments at universities was very much an English tradition (it is New England after all). This was both freeing, because of the erudite setting away from the masses, and constricting, because of the pressure to continue the tradition of the canon that was amplified in this learned setting, where music was studied as literature (Broyles, 1998).

Interestingly, none of these composers was of German descent, but they rather qualified as ‘WASP’, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, like the Boston elite in general. In spite of this, their music – the first widely acknowledged American composition school – was in essence very German (and usually more Brahmsian than Wagnerian, influenced by the dominant inclinations at the German conservatories where most Americans studied (Levy, 1984)), and it was on top of their German sound that they made the first steps towards an American style. Admittedly, this means that because of this, their style does not always sound completely natural. As a second paradox, even though they are arguably responsible for the birth of American music, none of them made the development of a national idiom a priority. Indeed, Paine thought it unnecessary to develop an American school, because in his view, music was a universal language transcending borders (Yang, 2003).

At the same time, the desire for truly American music was growing. Jeannette Thurber led the American Opera Company and the National Conservatory in New York, both established in 1885. As the 400th year anniversary of Columbus’ (re)discovery of America approached, she set out to start a composition department in the National Conservatory (Clapham, 1981). After being unsuccessful in getting MacDowell to become the first director of the Conservatory, she managed to engage Dvořák from 1892 until 1895 (Taruskin, n.d.), who was warmly received by musicians and patrons alike. In addition to his teaching duties, he of course composed his ‘American’ works: the Symphony No. 9 From the New World (op. 95), the American String Quartet No. 12 (op.96), the American String Quintet No. 3 (op. 97) and the American Suite (op. 98). In his explorations, he turned to an ethnomusicological approach to distill the essence of American style in music. In 1894, for example, he organised a concert in New York with only African-American music sung by an African-American chorus (Levy, 1984).

Ultimately, Dvořák’s advice to the American musical world was that, like the Bohemians, they should use ‘indigenous’ music, both from Native Americans and Afro-Americans (who were anything but indigenous, of course), as the basis for their art music (Taruskin, n.d.). These demographies were what set the Americans most apart from the Europeans in Dvořák’s eyes, but white Americans, and especially the elite in conservative Boston, were less pleased with his advice. Whereas New York was the bustling big city with a vibrant cultural life, the true cultural capital of the USA was still Boston, the Anglo-Saxon stronghold (Taruskin, n.d.). Chadwick, for example, expressed that he was not familiar enough with Afro-American music for a definitive view, but that he “should be sorry to see … such “Negro melodies” as he had heard … become the basis of an American school of musical composition” (Yang, 2003).

Dvořák’s advice did not go totally unheeded, though. However, it was toned down and recast in a safer way. Especially Chadwick and MacDowell ventured further in the search for an American style. Interestingly, both composers have signs of this before Dvořák’s arrival, although nationalism in music was never their priority. MacDowell, for example, first considered writing a tone poem about the fictional Native American hero Hiawatha in 1887 whilst he was in Germany (Crawford, 1996). However, Hiawatha was invented by New Englander Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the Fireside Poets, who formed the poetical counterpart to the Second New England School. Later, MacDowell wrote his Second Indian Suite op. 48, which he completed before Dvořák’s arrival but of which he delayed the premiere until 1896.

MacDowell viewed musical nationalism as a way to celebrate the innate virtue of a country. As such, it is unsurprising that he was more drawn to Native American than to Afro-American material: understandably, he wanted to recreate a heroic past of ‘noble savages’, rather than to touch upon the issue of slavery. His engagement with Native American material was also always from a distance: he never went to look for indigenous music like Bartók did in the Carpathian Basin, and he referred specifically to the past, rather than to the present, which would have meant touching upon the threatened situation of Native Americans. It must also be mentioned that MacDowell certainly did not stand alone, and the first decade of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a whole Indianist movement (Horowitz, 2001).

Of the composers in the Second New England School, Chadwick’s music is arguably closest to Dvořák’s. His fourth String Quartet, for example, seems to have been directly inspired by Dvořák’s American String Quartet op. 96, and was premiered by the same quartet, the Kneisel Quartet. However, even before Dvořák set foot in America, critics denoted his music as being American. Recurrently, Chadwick uses pentatonic material, for example in the scherzo movements of his first and second symphonies, both written before Dvořák’s From The New World with its famous pentatonic theme in the Largo (of course, pentatonic material is not exclusively American, but rather gives a folkish flair). Ledbetter writes about a “recognizable American style characterised by the unique rhythms of Anglo-American psalmody, Afro-Caribbean dance syncopations, parallel voice-leading (4thslandl5ths), and virtuoso orchestration.” (Ledbetter, 2001)

Furthermore, MacDowell, Chadwick and Beach shared an interest in Anglo-Celtic subjects (Strubble 1995; Yang, 2003). Beach did not draw very much inspiration from Native Americans (although she wrote some pieces on Inuit material, i.e. Natives but with added geographical distance (McLucas, 2010)) or from Afro-Americans (she also called jazz vulgar and debasing (Horowitz, 2001)). Taruskin interprets this as a response to Dvořák: he interprets Beach’s music as an indication that not only soil, but also blood is important, by making the link with the white settlers back to Europe and, in particular, Great Britain. Indeed, how could there be a geographically based folk music in such a young, heterogeneous nation? However, like in the case of MacDowell and the Native Americans, Beach was only interested in the ancient Celts, rather than, for example, the new wave of Irish immigrants in the 1840s. This is consistent with the general attitude in Boston vis-a-vis these newcomers, who were viewed as a threat to Boston’s liberal democracy.

Some of the music produced by composers in the Second New England School clearly surpasses nineteenth-century German conservatory style. Why then are these composers so unknown and why is their music almost never performed? Part of the reason for that is to be found in the schism that came immediately after them. First of all, Germanophilia turned into Germanophobia after the First World War, and was superseded by Francophilia. American students like Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Roy Harris, now flocked to Paris instead of to Germany, and especially to Nadia Boulanger’s class (Levy, 1984).

It was also partly through this French influence that jazz, already admired by the impressionists, properly entered American art music. Finally, not Native American, but Afro-American influences started to dominate the American style. After the initial cool reception of his advice, this is also a partial vindication of Dvořák, although in order to connect with all demographies, Afro-American material first had to be transformed into jazz idioms. The new political and cultural outlook, together with the active rebellion of the new generation of composers (including the slightly older Ives, who was a student of Parker’s) quickly meant that the Second New England School was viewed as academic, old-fashioned and musty, a bad reputation from which they still have not recovered a century later.

Only time will tell if this will ever change, but at least it should be clear that the Second New England School was a crucial phase in the development of American music. Leonard Bernstein dubbed it the kindergarten period of American music (Bernstein, 1958), and since we all know how formative these years are for children, let us certainly interpret this in the positive way. “You can’t be nationalistic on purpose,” Bernstein added, and maybe that was also one of these composers’ strengths: without forcing an American idiom, they gently opened the musical gate through which Bernstein would later walk himself.


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