What is Your Favorite Work by an American Composer?

John Knowles Paine (1839-1906)(Photo: harvard.edu)
John Knowles Paine (1839-1906)(Photo: harvard.edu)

Sometimes we don’t appreciate our own. Bach-Beethoven-Brahms, Mozart, Mahler, Schubert, Verdi they don’t need me to get noticed. But what about Griffes, Chadwick, Farwell and Chanler. Mere footnotes in today’s pantheon, but The world knew Gershwin, Ives and Barber. Here are three predecessors:

The recording of the Grand Mass by John Knowles Paine attracted  lot of attention twenty years ago. Who was John Knowles Paine and why did he write a Mass? Born in Maine in 1839. He studied in Dresden-one did in those day and came to the attention of Brahms. Paine spent most of his career on the music faculty of Harvard. There’s chamber music, a lot of music for organ-played by the composer in Harvard’s austerely beautiful Memorial Church, and there’s his great opus. The Mass in d has the large scale typical of Paine’s orchestral works. This New England gentleman reveled in the rich orchestral textures he heard in Europe, and wanted to work big. Doing so was at odds with New England reticence, but the Mass in d was widely admired .

Edward MacDowell is another American worth knowing better. Van Cliburn used to favor his piano concerto. MacDowell turned to knights in armor for inspirations: his orchestral works have titles like Lancelot and Elaine  and Hamlet and Ophelia. The piano seems to have been MacDowell’s first love

MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches are worthy of a young composer admired by Liszt. MacDowell died of tuberculosis in 1908.

Deems Taylor made his name in broadcasting.  His “Music Appreciation” broadcasts were enormously popular. Taylor wrote two operas, both on commission from the Metropolitan Opera. The King’s Henchman had a libretto by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The Met premiered it in 1927 and gave 17 performances. The papers sneered. Taylor’s fame on the airwaves enabled 17 performances, and no more.

Not so Peter Ibbetson based on a tale by Daphne duMaurier. This received the critical hosannas denied to Henchman and lasted over five seasons until 1936.  Gerard Schwartz revived and recorded the work in Seattle a few years back.

Deems Taylor was an estimable composer whose notoriety from broadcasting the Met hoped to borrow. Edward MacDowell wrote lovely Debussy-esque music. John Knowles Paine was the first to return from the Germany of Brahms and Schumann and declare America Europe’s equal. Three American composer, worth knowing better.