Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Finding Foote: A Surprising Piano Quintet on the Program

Arthur Foote
Tonight, the conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, Stuart Malina, joins with four of his principal string players to perform chamber music in the annual concert of Stuart & Friends, at the Rose Lehrman Center of Harrisburg Area Community College, at 7:30. You can read about the concert at the Harrisburg Symphony Blog, here.

With Ernest Bloch's "From Jewish Life" and Mozart's Piano Quartet K.493 on the first half, the program concludes, not surprisingly, with a Quintet for Piano and Strings.

But this one is by Arthur Foote.

Arthur Who?

Most American concert-goers would be hard-pressed to say they’re “familiar” with music by any American composer before 1900 – or at least, one way or another, before Charles Ives, that innovator of American music better known than heard.

Yet you’d think, considering our history technically goes back before 1776, there’d at least be something comparable to what was going on in Europe: Mozart and Haydn during the early years of the Republic, Beethoven around the time of our War of 1812, or Brahms and Wagner in the decade or so after the Civil War.

The truth is, there was very little market for classical music in the New World. The popular mood was for dance music and hymns – feeding the secular and spiritual needs of a hard-working population – while the wealthier Americans imported what they needed from their distant ancestral homelands and would have considered anything by American artists too plebian to decorate their cultural lives with.

European Art was considered edifying and appreciating it (and certainly owning it) was a sign of intelligence as well as wealth. American culture, such as it was, couldn't compete on an intellectual or even an aesthetic level with European culture and its long and brilliant history. This attitude can be found in many American literary works but especially in the novels of Henry James with their constant friction between established European culture and the rough-around-the-edges newly minted Americans looking for acceptance in the world, especially in A Portrait of a Lady and his last major novel, The Golden Bowl.

Besides, painters may have painted American scenes but they did so in English or German fashion; poets may have written about American subjects but – with one glaring exception – they wrote in English or German styles (the exception was and always will be Walt Whitman).

The same could be said for literature at least on the surface but here there were more distinct and distinctly American voices despite their cultural roots. The written word, at least, had deeper roots in American society.

America was viewed as an economic possibility for touring musicians and we, in our early centuries, would no doubt have benefited from visiting figures had transatlantic travel been easier. It was the amount of time cooped up on a ship that deterred Robert and Clara Schumann from following through on plans for an American tour. But, like Anton Rubinstein or Camille Saint-Saëns afterward, these visits were primarily to make as much money as quickly as possible and then return to the comforts and familiarity of home.

Much of the basis of what became our musical life here was founded or assisted by those fleeing history: the French Revolution or the decades of Napoleonic wars that followed; the series of mostly failed revolutions of 1848-1849 across much of Europe.

Even though he may have had little impact on the musical life of his adopted country, Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, the collaborator on such masterpieces as Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, fled creditors more than history and opened the first academic course in Italian literature in this country, introducing us to the likes of Dante. In addition, he also would run a country store in Sunbury PA, of all places, driving his supply wagons through Harrisburg on his way to and from Philadelphia. If nothing else, his conversations with a young man who worked for him named Simon Cameron helped instill in the boy an interest in cultural things unknown in this land. It would be amusing to imagine Cameron ever having discussions with Abraham Lincoln about the finer points of Mozart operas, but it may have only been one more reason Lincoln referred to his erstwhile Secretary of War (and former Ambassador to Russia) as “The Tsar of Pennsylvania.”

Anyone who wanted to become a composer in this country went to Europe to study. There were no conservatories here, not even university music departments. In fact, when John Knowles Paine offered lectures in music at Harvard where he was chapel organist and choirmaster, the faculty wondered why. In the early-1860s, he was allowed to give lectures but there were no credits available toward a degree – consequently, there were few students.

It was only later in 1870 that his lectures were given official recognition: a course in harmony was successful enough to warrant setting up a course in counterpoint and with it, eventually, course credit.

In 1875, Paine – a composer already recognized in Europe, most likely the first American (after Louis Moreau Gottschalk) to achieve international fame – finally became the first official Professor of Music in America. His plan for Harvard became the accepted model for music departments across the United States.

I mention all this because Arthur Foote was 21 when he graduated from Harvard in 1873, having taken Paine’s music classes, even though his plan was to go into the practice of law. It wasn’t until he started taking organ lessons to pass that first summer he decided music should be his career. In two years, he began a career as a music teacher in Boston, a profession he enjoyed for over sixty years. In addition to being organist at Boston’s First Unitarian Church until 1910, he also helped found the American Guild of Organists.

Technically, he is the first of that generation of composers who did not go to Europe to study. He is an entirely home-grown American composer. His style, for the most part, bears all the hallmarks of European standards, conservative and Victorian which itself was largely Germanic and often derivative of Brahms.

But like many of his generation, he has been forgotten, largely overshadowed by the innovative composers who came with the New Century, particularly Charles Ives (Yale, Class of 1898) and later Aaron Copland (who, ironically, went to Paris to become the first American pupil of the French teacher, Nadia Boulanger in 1921).

= = = = =
Here is a recording of Foote’s Piano Quintet with pianist Mary Louise Boehm, violinists Kees Kooper and Alvin Rogers, violist Richard Maximoff, and cellist Fred Sherry, a recording currently available on the Albany label but which I’d owned years ago on the Vox label. It’s in four movements which was posted on YouTube in three clips:
1st Mvmt

2nd Mvmt

3rd & 4th Mvmts

= = = = =

So, where does this Piano Quintet fit into the world of Arthur Foote?

It’s tempting to compare it to Brahms’ Piano Quintet especially when there are so few well-known works in the genre to begin with (imagine if there were only four string quartets that got any regular performance-time?). It certainly sounds like Brahms, at least on the surface, but Foote is more interested in the harmonic world of Brahms’ romanticism, not its underlying structure and counterpoint.

In Boston in the 1890s, Brahms was certainly not a “conservative” force. Today, we tend to lump Brahms and Wagner together as “two leading German Romanticists,” unaware how vibrantly (and often violently) different they were from each other to their contemporaries: if Wagner had started by creating “Music of the Future,” a term borrowed from his future father-in-law Franz Liszt, Brahms was looking back at the legacy of Beethoven and Bach (the conductor Hans von Bülow coined the idea of the Three B’s more as a marketing gimmick than a reflection of Brahms’ perceived placement in the musical firmament). But Brahms’ love of contrapuntal writing turned most of his American listeners off (the famous comment “Exit in case of Brahms” originated in Boston).

Dvořák, on the other hand, was a kind of “Poor Man’s Brahms” – the best elements of Brahms with his tunefulness and ability to switch between drama and lyricism combined with a populist folk-like style and lively dance rhythms that animated so much of Dvořák’s music whether it was written in Bohemia, Vienna or New York City (or, like his American chamber music, Spillville, IA).

And it was in 1892 that Dvořák arrived in New York to chair Mrs. Thurber’s National Conservatory – the following year, he would compose his newest symphony there, subtitled “From the New World.” She’d already hired the likes of Victor Herbert, but snagging Dvořák was a wealthy patron’s attempt to bring in some famous European superstar to guide and inspire young American talent. At least, that was the plan.

Now, it’s unfortunate that her money ran out in 1895 and Dvořák returned to Prague when it did. No great composer came out of his class – but one could say the same of many great composers who had numerous students: not every student went on to achieve greatness and Dvořák’s three academic years in America would certainly have created a small sampling to expect greatness from.

The only student who went on to have any impact on future students was the New York-born Rubin Goldmark whose uncle was the Austrian composer Carl Goldmark. He could count among his students names like Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, though it would be fair to say that he was also the reason Copland decided to go to Paris to study instead (finding Goldmark too pedantic). While Gershwin wrote his charming “Lullaby” as a harmony assignment for Goldmark, there was too little association to consider his future fame as anything but an indirect result of their brief intersection in time.

Even so, we think his idea about building an American Voice out of the use of American Folk-Songs – especially the spirituals of the American Negro – was a huge influence on the national scene. In fact, though he says he never quoted folk songs himself but only “wrote in the spirit” of these tunes, it wasn’t until later that composers took him literally, still arguing about exactly what an “American folk song” was.

There were the “Indianists” who found inspiration in the songs and rhythms of the Native Americans, including Goldmark who wrote a Hiawatha Overture as well as a “Negro Rhapsody” or Philadelphia-born Preston Ware Orem whose “Indian Rhapsody” for piano sounds more like one of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies superimposed on a few meager Native American ideas.

But most of America’s already established composers in the 1890s – especially those in Boston, the conservative antipode to America’s futuristic New York City – rejected Dvořák’s idea. Amy Beach (then known as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach) went so far as to write a symphony based on actual themes and folk songs from her British heritage which in 1896 became her Gaelic Symphony.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t “American elements” in Arthur Foote’s quintet aside from the homage to Brahms. He was, after all, a thoroughly American composer, born and trained here, but his Americanisms are no less American than Dvořák’s were – the essence of the idea rather than the substance of it – and I think unless he wrote specifically somewhere that he was in fact incorporating American themes into his music, we might probably be making assumptions of what it sounds like to us today rather than how it might have been perceived by his contemporaries over a century ago as well as by the composer himself.

Does that lessen the quality of the piece? No, not at all.

The Quintet as well as his most frequently performed piece (if the term is applicable at all), the Suite in E for Strings, and other works like his tone poems In the Mountains and Francesca da Rimini deserve to be heard if only in the context of a culture trying to find its voice.

There is, for instance, a Cello Concerto that was performed in 1894 by the recently formed Chicago Symphony: consider that Victor Herbert’s 2nd Cello Concerto was premiered in March 1894 and Dvořák began composing his that November, what could Foote’s Cello Concerto add to the fairly limited cello repertoire?

Will Arthur Foote’s Piano Quintet replace the Brahms Quintet on chamber music programs throughout America? Not very likely. It’s not sufficiently “substantial” (given our preference for the Masterpiece Quotient) to be the main work on any program – even here, the musical substance is on the first half of the concert with Mozart’s E-flat Piano Quartet, K.493 – nor is its composer recognizable enough to attract big crowds (in as much as chamber music ever does).

Could it stand being heard once in a while instead of one of the Big Four Quintets – those masterpieces by Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák and Shostakovich?

Yes, please.

- Dick Strawser