We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National
Richard Taruskin

But the question regarding the appropriateness of “plantation songs” remains. His use of them implies that for Dvořák, coming as he did from the outside, Native-American and African-American folklore were interchangeably “American” in connotation. For Americans, the great majority of whom were by then of European immigrant stock, it was not so. For Americans interested in cultivating the European art music tradition—meaning, in the first instance, German immigrants, in the second, cultivated Anglo-Saxons—it was even less so, for such an interest marked one off as even more “Eurocentric” than the average.

For such musicians, the unmarked native tongue for music was (like it or not) the same as it was for Dvořák—that is, German. That Dvořák never paused to consider that the national identities he was encouraging Americans to adopt belonged to separate, distinguishable (and, often, stigmatized) minority cultures, and that he never expected that this circumstance would bother Americans, shows to what an extent he remained an outsider to American history and culture. And it also shows that he valued his own Bohemianness (that is, valued it musically) as an element of exoticism—a manner of presenting the self as other. His fundamental loyalty—as a musician no less than as a citizen—was to the multinational empire in which he lived.

So while Dvořák could give his music an authentic “national” (that is, local or regional) coloring that represented within the multinational context an ethnically homogeneous, single, and separate “other,” there was no such coloring available to Euro-Americans. For them, “American” described not an ethnic but a geographical and political identity. To put it in Dvořákian terms, “American” connoted something far closer to “Austro-Hungarian” than to “Czech.” To claim to be “ethnically Austro-Hungarian” was an absurd contradiction in terms—but so was any claim by a white person to be “ethnically American.”

So Dvořák's advice to his American pupils, while well meant, was unworkable—and deeply resented by his native-born peers, that is those few American composers, chiefly white Anglo-Saxons from affluent families, who had received their professional training in the conservatories of Europe and shared Dvořák's basic loyalty to the unmarked, “universal” Germanic style. His object lesson, though emulated for a while by a short-lived school of “Indianists,” did not have a lasting impact on American composition. For most composers trained in “the higher forms of art,” an African-American or Native-American style could only be adopted in whiteface—hardly a condition calculated to impart a sense of cultural authenticity.

An American Response

fig. 14-4 Edward MacDowell.

That is easily enough seen even without taking racial prejudice into account. But of course prejudice, too, played a part in dismantling Dvořák's naive prescription. Edward MacDowell (1860–1908), a New York–born composer who had learned his trade from Joachim Raff in Frankfurt, and who was living in Boston during Dvořák's tenure in New York, felt the pressure to conform to the prestigious Bohemian master's ideas on musical Americanism, completing an “Indian Suite” (based on published field transcriptions) for orchestra, rather against his will, in 1895. Embarrassed by this concession to the vogue for vulgar “national trademarks,” as he put it, he nevertheless managed to justify his choice of trademark by insisting that “the stern but at least manly and free rudeness of the North American Indian” was in any case preferable to “the badge of whilom [i.e., former] slavery” worn by blacks.14

His temporary residence in Boston made MacDowell the most eminent representative for a while of the first self-styled and recognized “school” of American composers in the European art-music tradition. Besides being the first American composer since Gottschalk to establish a strong European reputation (partly through the efforts of Liszt, his mentor's mentor), MacDowell was like Gottschalk a virtuoso pianist who toured the cities of Europe with his own concertos and concert transcriptions as his vehicles, and he produced four monumental “characteristic” sonatas—“Tragica,” op. 45 (1892), “Eroica,” op. 50 (1895), “Norse,” op. 57 (1899), “Keltic,” op. 59 (1900)—in the Lisztian mold. His many character-pieces for piano, issued in sets with evocative titles like Woodland Sketches (which opened with the once very popular “To a Wild Rose”), Sea Pieces, Fireside Tales, and New England Idyls, maintained the Schumannesque line past the turn of the century.

MacDowell had actually been Mrs. Thurber's first choice to lead the National Conservatory, a job that she felt by rights should have gone to a native-born composer, but he shunned the administrative duties that the job would have entailed, and there was no other American at the time who could have matched his prestige. Yet shortly after Dvořák's departure from New York, in 1896, MacDowell took his place there as a leading cultural figure in the nation's biggest city when he accepted appointment as head of the newly founded music department at Columbia University. Just as he had feared, the heavy pressures of his job, made more difficult by quarrels with the university administration, took a severe toll on his creative energies and his mental health. The last seven years of his life were barren, and he eventually became a “charity case” before dying of the combined effects of injuries sustained in a traffic accident and what was then diagnosed as “paresis” or general paralysis, a euphemism for the terminal effects of venereal disease.

Just what you'd expect from New York, his former Boston colleagues may well have muttered. Boston, the great museum and university city, defined itself in the nineteenth century (as to a degree it still does) in opposition to New York. New York, the commercial capital of the nation and perhaps the world, was in the eyes of Bostonians, and for that very reason, the capital of baseness and vulgarity. Boston was the capital of culture. Where New York symbolized the teeming immigrant “melting pot” to which Dvořák could appeal in urging an American style drawn from an amalgam of minority cultures, Boston was then the Anglo-Saxon stronghold. Despite the presence of a growing Irish immigrant minority, affluent Bostonians considered theirs to be a purebred city, the birthplace of the United States and the hub of “real” America. Its genteel mores nurtured the cultivation of the European fine arts, in contrast to the low mercenary culture of the big city to the southwest. These conditions made Boston the place where one might have expected the first school of professional Euro-American composers to appear, and also determined to a large extent the values that their music would embody.

The “Boston School”—sometimes called the “Second Yankee School” to distinguish it from the New England hymn writers of the colonial period—was a proudly academic establishment. Its first major representative, John Knowles Paine (1839–1906), was also the first professor of music at Harvard, which made him the first professor of music at any American university. Having composers teach at universities rather than conservatories was the British rather than the German tradition; the early music professors at German universities (of whom Hanslick was the first) lectured on music history and esthetics as adjuncts to philosophy departments. But Paine's training was solidly German, obtained at the Berlin conservatory (known as the Hochschule für Musik, the “High School of Music”) between 1858 and 1861. He spent the rest of his life imparting a similar training to his pupils at Harvard.

The other major figures in the first Boston generation—that is, the generation trained in Europe rather than Boston—were George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931), who studied in Leipzig and Munich (with Josef Rheinberger, a famous organist and prestigious composer) and taught at Boston's New England Conservatory, where he became the director in 1897; and Horatio Parker (1863–1919), who after preliminary studies in Boston was sent by Chadwick to Rheinberger, and who taught at Yale, where he was dean of the School of Music from 1904 until his death.

The “Boston School's” second and third generations consisted of pupils of Paine, Chadwick, and Parker: Arthur William Foote (1853–1937), Frederick Shepherd Converse (1871–1940), Edward Burlingame Hill (1872–1960), Daniel Gregory Mason (1873–1953), John Alden Carpenter (1876–1951), David Stanley Smith (1877–1949). Like their teachers, they were all New Englanders by birth or education, were uniformly of Anglo-Saxon stock, and (with the exception of Carpenter, who went into business) earned their living as academics or organists.

An American Response

fig. 14-5 Amy Marcy Cheney Beach.

The group had one other important member, however, who studied neither in Europe nor with any of the founders, but whose achievements realized the Boston School's aspirations in a particularly distinguished way: Amy Marcy Beach (née Cheney, 1867–1944), perhaps the nineteenth century's most successful woman composer of “large-scale art music” (to quote her biographer, Adrienne Fried Block). In keeping with a pattern we have noted at several earlier points in this book, her gender kept her, despite evidence of highly precocious talent, from the pursuit of a professional career.

Her wealthy parents thought it unsuitable for a well-bred girl to study at a European conservatory. Instead they engaged private teachers for her, but mainly in piano-playing, a proper social grace. Her training in composition was confined to some informal study of scores with Wilhelm Gericke, an Austrian conductor then leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a single year of harmony and counterpoint with a local instructor, Junius W. Hill. Orchestration and fugue she taught herself by translating and working through the Paris conservatory textbooks in those subjects.

As a pianist, meanwhile, she flourished, making her first appearance with orchestra at the age of sixteen, and a formal, highly successful, Boston Symphony debut in 1885 with Chopin's F-minor Concerto. Later that year, she married Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a socially prominent Boston surgeon, twenty-four years her senior, who lectured on anatomy at Harvard. Her married state precluded any more concertizing, and it appeared that her talent would go the way of Clara Wieck's and Fanny Mendelssohn's—that is, wither on the vine.

But the childless marriage between the eighteen-year-old musical prodigy and the forty-two-year-old society doctor turned out to be fortunate for her work. Her husband's wealth gave her unlimited leisure, indeed forced it upon her, and he had no objection either to her avocational composing or to her publishing her work. She was free to compose in the larger forms, and she had a ready and admiring public in Boston society. Whatever drawback her sex might have afforded under less ideal conditions were offset by her social prominence, by her conformity with social convention, and (in apparent—but only apparent—paradox) by the marginalism, in those days, of American composers generally. Indulged at first as a local favorite, “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach” (as, in accordance with domestic custom, she always signed her work) eventually acquired a national reputation. Anton Seidl, the New York conductor, is reported to have considered her music superior to Brahms's. (But he said it of Chadwick's music, too, and as a card-carrying Wagnerian may have had his reasons.) Beach embarked on her first and only symphony almost immediately after hearing the Boston premiere of Dvořák's “New World” in January 1894. It was obviously her model. The two symphonies are in the same key, the relatively rarely used E minor. While her symphony does not employ cyclic returns, at least not to anything like the extent that Dvořák's does, its complex and broadly constructed outer movements, as was increasingly the fashion, were developed out of a single fund of motifs. To compound the tour de force, they came from one of her many art songs, “Dark Is the Night,” first published in 1890. Beach did not reveal this fact, but she fairly trumpeted the information that the middle movements (and the “closing theme” in the first) were based on the melodies of what she called “Irish-Gaelic” folk songs, for which reason the whole symphony bears the title, “Gaelic.”

Thus Beach's symphony was an ambitious and advanced work not only from the standpoint of its proportions and its craftsmanship—though these were impressive enough to earn an accolade from Chadwick, who wrote the composer that her work was “full of fine things, melodically, harmonically, and orchestrally, and mighty well built besides,” and that from now on she was, as far as he was concerned, “one of the boys.”15 Beyond this, the symphony sought to engage directly in the esthetic debates of the day as they intersected with social ones.

Her use of Irish folklore was a response to Dvořák comparable to Brahms's response to Beethoven in the last movement of his First Symphony. It was both a declaration of affiliation and a corrective—in Beach's case, a characteristically Bostonian corrective. Like Dvořák, she sought a melodic content that advertised a specific national origin, in large part owing (as did his) to the use of pentatonic scales. But that national origin was “American” in a sense that only Boston, perhaps, would have fully endorsed or understood. “We of the north,” Beach wrote in a letter to the Boston Herald in which she took explicit issue with Dvořák's prescriptions, “should be far more likely to be influenced by old English, Scotch or Irish songs, inherited with our literature from our ancestors.”16 Like the composers of Europe, then, Beach defined the national not merely in terms of soil (as the Bohemian Dvořák had benignly, but condescendingly, urged Americans to do) but in terms of blood as well. She identified herself musically, as did most Bostonians (or Bohemians, for that matter), not with the country of which she happened to be a citizen, which had neither a uniform ethnicity nor a long history, but with the country from which she descended ethnically, assuming that that “Celtic” blood descent identified her as a sort of Ur-American, an American aristocrat.

For just back of the notion of the “Boston American” lay that of the “Mayflower American” or, in Mrs. Beach's case, the notion of nationality upheld by the Daughters of the American Revolution, to recall by name a politically conservative and, it must be added, a socially intolerant organization of which Mrs. Beach was not only a member but a leader. (The D.A.R.’s closest brush with music history came in 1939, when it denied the use of Constitution Hall, its public auditorium in Washington, D.C., to Marian Anderson, a famous black American contralto, for a recital that would have included a group of songs of the kind on which Dvořák naively proposed the founding of an authentically American art music.)

These socially divisive and hierarchical assumptions are among the subtexts that underlie Amy Beach's “Gaelic” Symphony, alongside more progressive ones like the artistic emancipation of women (of which, after her death, her career became a symbol for a new generation of feminist musicians and musicologists). Its finale, the most impressive testimony to her mastery of “the higher forms of art” and a most decisive rebuke to those who look for stereotyped expressions of “femininity” in music by women, contained “only themes of my own devising,” Beach wrote. But, she went on, she intended it to convey the same impression as the movements drawn from actual folk artifacts. Just as the tunes in the middle movements, “like the folk music of every race, sprang from the common joys, sorrows, adventures and struggles of a primitive people,” so the finale expressed “the rough, primitive character of the Celtic people, their sturdy daily life, their passions and battles, and the elemental nature of their processes of thought and its resulting action.”

The emphasis on archaism was significant. It distinguished the ancient Celts, with whom the composer and her audience identified in solidarity, from the contemporary Irish—the newly arrived, working-class immigrant minority that was then just beginning to threaten Yankee hegemony in Boston—with whom they certainly did not. The same distinction was drawn in the case of Jews, between the contemporary diaspora “yids” encountered in daily life and the manly race of biblical “Hebrews” or “Israelites,” another heroic warrior race celebrated musically since the days of Handel, who continued to be the object of much admiring attention from European and Euro-American composers who were otherwise conventionally, if not enthusiastically, anti-Semitic: both Chadwick in Boston and Alexander Serov in St. Petersburg, for example, wrote operas based on the Apocryphal book of Judith, which celebrates the Hebrew victory over the Assyrians.

Beach's finale is cast in “three-part sonata form” as taught in late-nineteenth-century textbooks and conservatory curricula. The composer's own analysis breaks it down into an exposition and recapitulation, linked by a “free fantasia” (that is, development) section. The thematic material consists of two themes, of which the first is drawn from a alla breve phrase that conspicuously intrudes (in a manner probably recollected from the scherzo in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony) on the first movement's coda, otherwise cast like the rest of the movement in time. (The first three movements of the symphony are all written in compound meters; that was evidently a part of the “Gaelic” characterization.) The lyrical second theme, while not derived from a folk tune, is nevertheless pentatonic in the folk manner.

Both themes are “fully worked out,” as the composer put it, in the exposition, so that “the free fantasia is comparatively short, owing to the extensive development of the themes when first presented.” That, as we have seen, was a characteristic of Brahmsian construction: a demonstratively advanced style of composing. In the development section (Ex. 14-11a), the initial motif of the first theme is extended into a syncopation that transforms it into a near twin of the very first phrase played (by the cellos) at the outset of Dvořák's “New World” Symphony (Ex. 14-11b)—too close and conspicuous to be anything but a deliberate reference—and given a chromatically ascending sequential treatment over the next forty bars that again evokes memories of Beethoven's Eroica. The coda, in which the lyrical second theme is finally recapitulated amid huzzahs from the heavy brass, in the tonic major and in augmented note-values, is the very essence of valiant affirmation.

These resonances were not lost on critics. Reviews of the Boston Symphony premiere repeatedly resorted to the epithet “heroic” to describe the symphony, or else (to quote one) conjured up images of “Ossianic heroes … gathering in spite of whirlwind and storm.”17 (Ossian was the legendary Celtic bard whose poems, published in 1762, were subsequently exposed as a forgery.) The ethical quality the image evoked was itself an expression of the Puritan ideals espoused by the composers of the Boston School, and dependably found by like-minded critics in their work.

Their collusion in what modern critics call “redemptive culture” represented (in the words of Macdonald Smith Moore, a historian of the Boston School) “a dual mission”:18 on the one hand, “an errand into the wilderness of the impending twentieth century to manifest New England's right to speak for America”; and on the other, a campaign for what the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold (another enthusiastic student of Celtic lore) famously dubbed the culture of Sweetness and Light—“a secular religious force capable of formulating principles of individual and social value.” Mrs. H. H. A. Beach's “Gaelic” Symphony was a monument to these once-powerful ideals.

An American Response

ex. 14-11a Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, “Gaelic” Symphony IV one measure before [F]

An American Response

ex. 14-11b Antonín Dvořák, “New World” Symphony, I, mm. 1–4


(14) Quoted in Lawrence Gilman, Edward Mac Dowell (New York: John Lane, 1908), p. 84.

(15) Quoted in Adrienne Fried Block, Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 103.

(16) Boston Herald, 28 May 1893; quoted in Block, Amy Beach, p. 87.

(17) The Boston Courier; quoted in Walter S. Jenkins, The Remarkable Mrs. Beach, American Composer (Warren, Mich.: Harmonie Park Press, 1994), p. 38.

(18) Macdonald Smith Moore, Yankee Blues: Musical Culture and American Identity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 3.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2017. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Feb. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Feb. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014004.xml