In Praise of Chadwick

Remembering one of American music’s founding fathers

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Eighty-eight years ago on this date, George Whitefield Chadwick died, and if that name is unfamiliar to you, I would recommend reading the lengthy obituary that Olin Downes published in The New York Times eight days after Chadwick’s death. “No other American composer of this or any previous generation,” Downes wrote, “produced as much important music in as many different forms. … With him a whole epoch in American music culminated.” In describing Chadwick’s many accomplishments (as a conductor and teacher, as well as a composer), Downes was attempting to enshrine him in the American cultural pantheon: “When all is said and done, he more than any other man gives his creative period its stamp and character and represents most completely the body of serious American music.” Chadwick’s music, the article concluded, “will live long. It is impossible to think of a more honest and accomplished musician, or one who, without pretense or megalomania, accomplished as much for the development of his native art.”

How wrong Downes turned out to be—not about Chadwick’s music, but about how it would be remembered. In subsequent decades, the composer became a figure of willful neglect and for some musicians (Leonard Bernstein comes to mind) an object of derision. To understand why, we must remember the state of classical music in early April 1931, when Chadwick lay dying in his Boston home. By that time, Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary Rite of Spring was already 18 years old, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was 19, and Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra was 21. Even 12-tone music had been around for a solid decade. In the United States, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, and others were finding expression in their own modernist idioms. Now consider Chadwick, whose symphonies, songs, chamber music, operas, and symphonic poems—melodic and tonal—would have seemed hopelessly old-fashioned by comparison. Worse still, this music, written by a New Englander through and through, was deemed to be not quite American enough. In his essay “America’s Musical Maturity,” Virgil Thomson wrote:

Our early great men, all the same—Chadwick and [Horatio] Parker and [Edward] MacDowell—are merely ancestors. For all the charm and competence of their music, it is a pale copy of its continental models. Its thin perfume is of another time and place than twentieth-century America.

That assessment was delivered in the heart of a volatile and relentlessly forward-looking century. But does it still hold today?

Chadwick was born in 1854, into a musical household in Lowell, Massachusetts. His father, who was in the insurance business, instructed vocalists and choruses as a hobby, and music was always encouraged, as a noble pastime if not a profession. The young Chadwick received his first piano lessons from his brother, with the two eventually playing Beethoven symphonies together, in four-hand piano reductions. One of his formative musical experiences was attending the National Peace Jubilee in Boston. These concerts, spread out over five days in the middle of June 1869, commemorated the conclusion of the Civil War and involved more than 1,000 instrumentalists and nearly 11,000 singers. Chadwick’s father and brother sang in one of the choruses, and the experience of watching them in such grand and exultant proceedings only intensified his own musical ambitions. Two years later, Chadwick dropped out of high school and began working in his father’s insurance firm, which earned him the money he needed for music lessons. He enrolled at the New England Conservatory soon after, and at the age of 21, he quit the insurance business and moved to Michigan, where he began teaching at Olivet College. His father was none too pleased, but Chadwick’s individualist streak had prevailed. Over the years, he had cultivated it out of necessity—his mother had died when he was a baby, and even though his father remarried, he was left at times to fend for himself.

Saving nearly the entirety of a year’s salary at Olivet, Chadwick realized the dream of any aspiring American composer of his time: he set off for Germany. Studying in Leipzig, he immersed himself in the city’s rich musical culture, taking in choral concerts at the Thomasschule and orchestral performances at the Gewandhaus. (Imagine being in the Gewandhaus, as Chadwick was, on New Year’s Day 1879, when Joseph Joachim premiered the Brahms Violin Concerto, with Brahms himself conducting.) Moving later to Munich, Chadwick studied with the influential Joseph Rheinberger, working on orchestration and choral music. In Germany, the composer would later say, “they kept me at harmonizing chorales for years, and I shall always be grateful for that incomparable discipline.” It was in Europe that he wrote his first pieces to gain favorable notice: two string quartets and a concert overture called Rip van Winkle.

By turns dreamy, rollicking, and dramatic, Rip van Winkle shows just how well Chadwick absorbed the lessons of his German teachers, in that it marries 19th-century European symphonic technique to a quintessentially American subject. In 1880, the year Chadwick returned to Boston, he was invited to conduct the work with the city’s prestigious Handel and Haydn Society. This early compositional period produced, among other pieces, a comic opera called Tabasco, which was so popular in its day that, in the words of the conductor Karl Krueger, “some of its tunes were whistled from one end of the country to the other.”

After a period of giving private music lessons, Chadwick accepted a position at the New England Conservatory, eventually becoming its director—he would not relinquish the post until just before his death. His students included the likes of Horatio Parker and William Grant Still, yet his duties extended beyond teaching: he conducted the school’s orchestra (training many a professional instrumentalist), inaugurated an opera workshop, wrote a popular textbook on harmony, and in general brought considerable rigor to the pedagogical system. “His unremitting insistence upon technical discipline and precision of workmanship was not arid,” Krueger wrote,

but always tempered by the flexibility of the true artist’s temperament and the juices of his wit; his advice to young musicians was invaluable, for, he combined the New England instinct for the practical with a feeling for beauty—he understood the workaday problems of the professional musician as well as the higher demands of his art. He was a man of original ideas and possessed the charm of a sprightly humor.

His work at the conservatory, and the music festivals he was hired to direct, left him little time to compose. This he did during his summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where he purchased a house in 1893. That was the year he wrote his Symphony No. 3 in F major. He composed quickly and with confidence, dispensing with preliminary pencil sketches and writing in ink. He entered the work in a competition sponsored by New York City’s National Conservatory—Antonin Dvořák was its director in those days—and was awarded the $300 prize. Much to Chadwick’s delight, it was Dvořák who notified him of the news. The following year, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the symphony. “The orchestra and all the musicians agreed that this was my best work so far,” Chadwick wrote in one of his memoirs. “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.”

Now, well over a century later, Brahms remains a presence in the passages of this symphony. So does Dvořák. There are hints of Wagner, as well, and early Richard Strauss. These influences, which to varying degrees informed the music of other composers often associated with Chadwick—John Knowles Paine, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, and Edward MacDowell—would later be used by critics to dismiss the score as mere European imitation. But from what tradition, other than that of Central Europe, could Chadwick have readily drawn? What constituted an “authentic” American sound in the high art of the late 19th century? It was all well and good for Dvořák to encourage this country’s composers to mine the heritage of black and American Indian music, but Chadwick’s métier was continental, German, in particular—and this was hardly unexpected, given the context of his age.

It may be tempting to think of Chadwick as a young innocent who had journeyed abroad to soak up the culture of the Old World, returning home with his head swimming with Beethoven and Brahms. The truth is he need not have left New England for that. The massive influx of German immigrants to this country during the middle decades of the 19th century was almost singularly responsible for elevating classical music culture into the realm of respectability, and occasionally of excellence. In the nation’s new symphony orchestras, from St. Louis to Boston, Chicago to Cincinnati, German immigrants filled the ranks. The New York Philharmonic, for example, was founded by Germans in 1842, and a little more than a decade later, 70 percent of the musicians were German. As Joseph Horowitz has noted in his seminal study of American concert life, Understanding Toscanini, by 1892, every single member but three was German. Not surprisingly, the repertoire consisted mainly of Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Schumann, Wagner, and Mendelssohn. Meanwhile at the Metropolitan Opera, every work during the company’s first seven years was presented in German.

It wasn’t just musicians who were products of the German musical tradition. Editors, critics, tastemakers of all kinds were steeped in the masterworks of Central Europe, and continental models reigned at the country’s nascent music schools. When Chadwick’s New England Conservatory was founded in 1867, it sought to emulate the German tradition. “In American universities,” Horowitz wrote, “Germany stood for academic freedom, and for advance scholarship in science, medicine, philosophy, and jurisprudence. In music, the German hegemony actually increased during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.” There were, to be sure, prominent exceptions—Louis Moreau Gottschalk being one—but art music in America was, generally speaking, German music. Part of Virgil Thomson’s dismissal of Chadwick had to do with his belief that most of German and Austrian music of the late 19th century was as decadent as “a dying swan”—rather an astonishing statement considering that Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and Strauss were all alive and producing at that time.

It’s not that Chadwick’s style remained static over time. His Symphonic Sketches of 1904, perhaps his most overtly American work, incorporated folk elements and vaudeville motifs into its spritely Mendelssohnian textures, and his elegiac overture Adonais experimented with both harmony and rhythm. But for me, the earlier works are just as important and deserve to be heard far more often than they are. If only every music director in America who was tempted to program the same Wagner overture for the 100th time would choose to play Rip van Winkle instead. In lieu of yet another Dvořák New World Symphony, what if we could hear Chadwick’s Symphony No. 3 just once? Chadwick’s Third is a work full of beautiful, sweeping melodies and moments of high drama. It has an incredibly moving, luminous slow movement (the symphony’s emotional heart), a scherzo marked by good humor and considerable contrapuntal invention, and a grand, joyous finale that gets the pulse racing. I’m pretty sure that if some musicologist had found this manuscript in the dusty archives of a Bohemian library, and proclaimed it to be a long-lost piece of Dvořák’s, the musical world would be hailing the find of the century.

The late 19th century may well have been, as Thomson characterized it, “a sort of adolescence” period in American music. And it is true that American music didn’t reach adulthood until the century of Copland, Ives, and Elliott Carter. But it would be a mistake to equate adolescence with juvenilia. We should accept the circumstances in which Chadwick created his music and enjoy it for its many felicities. The Symphony No. 3, in particular, may be the product of youth, but if you listen to it in the proper context, embrace it on its own terms, it begins to sound less like a mere “pale copy” and more and more like an American masterpiece.

Listen to Neeme Järvi lead the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in this performance of George Whitefield Chadwick’s Symphony No. 3:

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.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up