A Symphony for Springtime

Or, when is an American symphony not American enough?

Stylized sepia photograph of John Knowles Paine

If you had been a Boston concertgoer in early March of 1880, you could have heard, within a span of 24 hours, performances by two different orchestras of a highly anticipated new work: the Symphony No. 2 by John Knowles Paine. The first concert took place on the evening of the 10th, with Bernard Listemann leading the Boston Philharmonic. The next afternoon, the Harvard Musical Association and conductor Carl Zerrahn had their turn. By many accounts, the performances were ragged but the responses sensational, the ovation at the premiere, in particular, being jubilant and wild—women waving handkerchiefs, men hollering their approval, and one prominent member of the community, the music critic John Sullivan Dwight, opening and closing his umbrella over and over again, utterly overcome by emotion. The critic at the Boston Gazette called Paine’s symphony “by far the finest work hitherto written on American soil by an American composer.” The reviewer at The Boston Evening Transcript was no less effusive, describing it as a

masterpiece, classic and solid in form and matter, and yet enriched with the modern style and vitalized with the modern spirit of musical art. As it marks a new departure in [Paine’s] own career, it also marks an epoch in the development of art in America, and sets the standard of excellence on the very highest plane.

It was, in other words, both an artistic success and a source of national pride, a symphony that could hold its own beside the orchestral works of the European masters. After at least one more performance in Boston, and further hearings in New York and Chicago, Paine’s Symphony No. 2 seemed destined to be an enduring part of American concert life. Within a few decades, however, interest in the work died out. A new generation of critics dismissed it as something quaint and outmoded, and—with its idiom so beholden to German Romanticism—a work not authentically American enough. To think that at the time of the symphony’s composition, Paine was the most eminent musician in the whole of New England, if not the entire country.

He was born in 1839 in Portland, Maine, into a family that had ancestral ties to the Mayflower. His father, Jacob, ran a music store in Portland and was an amateur musician, establishing the city’s first band. John exhibited talent as a child, but when he entered the tutelage of Hermann Kotzschmar, a noted German organist who had settled in the United States a decade before, he truly came into his own. The Paines were not wealthy—Jacob had lost the family business in a fire that ravaged Portland in 1856 and had died not long afterward—but using funds raised from a series of organ recitals, John was able to travel to Berlin to continue his education. He spent three grueling years studying composition, theory, and the organ, and he returned to Boston as one of the finest organists in America. He was hired by Harvard to be its first organist and choirmaster, but what he really hoped to do was to elevate the instruction of music into the realm of the other liberal arts, and in 1862, he established, against considerable opposition, a music department at Harvard. In 1876, he became a professor at the college and would remain there until his retirement in 1905.

His activities as a composer, meanwhile, were garnering him both critical and public acclaim. He himself conducted his Mass in D—a sprawling early piece that is powerful if flawed, and intensely moving—with the Berlin Singakademie in 1867, the first time an American had conducted a major work anywhere in Europe. The massive oratorio St. Peter further revealed his knack for large-scale vocal forms, though he was equally adept at orchestral writing. Chief among his pieces were the concert overture As You Like It, the symphonic poem The Tempest, and his Symphony No. 1, which the conductor Theodore Thomas championed to great acclaim in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. These pieces established Paine’s credentials as a bona fide Romantic. His Second Symphony, however, was something altogether different, a piece more inventive and assured than anything he had written before.

Subtitled In Spring, the symphony is divided into four movements, each of which was given an evocative title— “Departure of Winter; Awakening of Nature”; “May-night Fantasy”; “Romance of Springtime”; “The Glory of Nature”—after the fact (not by Paine but by a musicologist writing in 1889). Unlike another famous depiction of spring, Schumann’s First Symphony—which opens with a trumpet fanfare that seems to banish the winter and summon forth the warmth and glory of the new season—Paine’s symphony begins slowly, with a dark-hued, melancholy passage in the lower strings. This introductory section is alternately dreamy and impassioned, agitated and sweet, and the initial wintry motive reappears often, assuming many guises, this musical iciness refusing to thaw, insinuating itself into passages of otherwise splendid warmth.

At least a few of the European listeners who first heard the work were perplexed. In 1892, the American conductor Franz Xavier Arens had organized a tour of Germany and Austria to showcase the music of 20 American composers. Paine’s Second Symphony generally received favorable notices, sometimes glowing, though one critic in Dresden took issue with the gloominess of the first movement:

How differently the American portrays spring as opposed to the German! … Upon hearing such music, we Germans miss the picture of blooming, buzzing, and budding; we would wax poetic, sing, dream, and revel. Not so the American—he seems hardly to know and hastily skips over the deeper nature of spring.

But the New England springtime that Paine intimately knew wasn’t always birdsong and reveries. I’m assuming that the Dresden reviewer was unfamiliar with Henry James’s The Europeans, published two years before Paine composed his Second Symphony, in which the siblings Felix and Eugenia arrive in America from Europe and find themselves ensconced in a Boston hotel on what happens to be the 12th of May. Looking out the window, a dejected Eugenia encounters a funereal scene:

The window-panes were battered by the sleet; the headstones in the graveyard beneath seemed to be holding themselves askance to keep it out of their faces. A tall iron railing protected them from the street, and on the other side of the railing an assemblage of Bostonians were trampling about in the liquid snow.

Parts of Paine’s first movement seem to have emerged from this very world, though there are plenty of happier moments to come, with a dance-like sensibility akin to Beethoven’s Seventh.

Each of the symphony’s movements contains imaginative, skillfully crafted passages that are full of charm. But the most ravishing music can be heard in the Adagio, an almost indescribably beautiful essay in pathos and longing that belies its lightweight title (“Romance of Springtime”) and speaks to more intense human emotions. It seems to anticipate the otherworldly Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, composed two decades later. Listen to how the violins sound out the heartfelt theme with the cellos plucking eighth notes beneath in figures of six; or how the oboe’s haunting melody rises in tandem with the strings before giving way to a startling brass fanfare; or how the inventive doubling of winds and brass with the string theme toward the end gives the melody a wonderful sense of having evolved; or how the movement concludes with such serenity, the strings muted in quiet resignation.

It’s amazing that this landmark symphony could have been so easily forgotten. As with the other seminal New Englanders—George Whitefield Chadwick, Horatio Parker, and Edward MacDowell, among them—modernism killed off Paine’s music. And with the ascendancy of American vernacular forms, reflected in the music of Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and others, any music arising from the German Romantic tradition could be ridiculed and ignored. Paine may have been the acknowledged dean of a New England school, but he could not be comfortably located with any American school. Even Paine’s student Richard Aldrich, writing in the early 20th century, argued that Paine’s music, despite its “fertility,” “genuine warmth,” “spontaneity of invention,” and “fine harmonic feeling,” did not “disclose ‘American’ characteristics.” But what in Paine’s time and cultural milieu would have constituted an American characteristic?

Throughout Europe in the 19th century, nationalism found expression in orchestral works that drew from folk songs and indigenous idioms. Antonin Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana in the Czech lands, Mikhail Glinka in Russia, Edvard Grieg in Norway, Isaac Albéniz in Spain were, consciously or not, recoiling from the cosmopolitan, pan-European musical culture of the previous century. But musical nationalism came late to the United States. Though there were exceptions, it wasn’t until the 20th century that American composers incorporated black spirituals or church hymns, say, into symphonic forms. Paine’s musical inheritance, moreover, was Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann—not “Good-bye, Liza Jane,” “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” or “Moonlight on the Lake.” And though he could not be considered alongside the likes of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, forging quintessentially American epics out of homegrown materials, he was very much akin to Henry James and William Dean Howells, who wrote from a continental perspective in books such as Roderick Hudson, The Bostonians, and Indian Summer.

Even so, I would argue that Paine’s Second Symphony contains music that is unmistakably American. The final movement begins in somewhat unremarkable fashion, the development of the main theme almost dutifully straightforward, but then something magical happens. The joyous mood turns suddenly somber. Then, shortly after a caesura, within the course of two measures, the violins and violas rise up to fortissimo heights, borne along on a dizzying arpeggio of triplets, to be joined by the entire orchestra in a majestic, glorious hymn—a hymn of thankfulness, beneficence, and goodwill that seems to have emerged from some rural New England church. The movement’s first theme returns, grander now, as if emboldened by that hymn, and after some clever interplay between sections of the orchestra, the tension builds and builds before that hymn is heard again. It is played one last time before the symphony ends, a powerful final statement of old-fashioned Yankee optimism. It’s a brilliant effect, and anyone who fails to hear in these lines a vital and distinctly American idiom simply isn’t listening closely enough. The conductor Karl Krueger once described Paine as “the first significant American symphonist.” Based on the evidence of this symphony alone, he does not deserve to be forgotten.

Listen to Zubin Mehta conduct the New York Philharmonic in John Knowles Paine’s Second Symphony:

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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