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John Knowles Paine - The First Of The Great American Composers


At the present time we possess a numerous band of native composers of even more than national fame, for the works of Chadwick, MacDowell, Van der Stucken, Parker, and many others, have been performed in European concerts, while Arthur Bird, Templeton Strong, Burmeister, Kaun, Kelley and others have expatriated themselves and are actively engaged in music in foreign countries. But this international fame is a matter of comparatively recent date. The present writer remembers a time when such composers as Reinecke, Massenet, Gade, and even Rheinberger (who subsequently taught many Americans) knew nothing of any music emanating from natives of the United States.

john-k-paine.jpgThe first American who won the respect of European masters by his musical abilities and by his compositions was John K. Paine, who was also the first American to achieve something permanent in the classical forms of music. Before him there had existed William H. Fry, who had written a couple of operas (the first American operas of any merit), Lowell Mason, who had done yeoman service in advancing popular music, and a host of convention leaders and psalmodists of lesser degree. Within the space of Prof. Paine’s life lies all that is important in American composition. He began his career when the United States was in Cimmerian darkness in musical matters; he lived through an advance that was phenomenal, and he himself has been one of the chief factors in that uplift.

Career of Prof. Paine.

John K. Paine was born in Portland, Me., January 9, 1839, and was educated for a musical career from his childhood. He became a pupil of an excellent Maine teacher, named Kotzschmar, and was a good organist when he was eighteen years of age. At this time he had already achieved some standing as a composer, chiefly in the smaller forms.

After a public appearance in Portland, he went, at the age of nineteen, to Berlin, where he began more advanced study of the organ under Haupt, and composition under Wieprecht and Teschner. Dr. William Mason and Prof. Paine were the first two prominent American students in Germany. Since their time, a great band of Americans have studied there, and Haupt and Rheinberger, in Berlin and Munich, have influenced our art as powerfully as though they had dwelt within our borders.

During the three years of the young Paine’s residence in Germany, he appeared several times as an organist in public, and the American, who at first was regarded as a rara avis, a curiosity, seems to have achieved an artistic position before he came back to the United States. Returning to Germany, in 1867, the now fully-recognized composer gave a performance of his Mass in D, his first composition in the large forms to be heard publicly. The performance of this, in Berlin, may be said to be an epoch in American musical history, for it was the first time that a native of the United States had presented a large work of his own creation in Continental Europe. It was performed at the Sing-Akademie, and the Berlin critics at once hailed it as a classical work. Geyer spoke of the “Crucifixus” as reaching the “highest ideal.”

In America, at this time, Mr. Paine was recognized as one of the leading organists of the country, and it was in some degree through his influence that the great organ was set up in Music Hall, in Boston. But it was not only in organ music that his influence was felt; in uplifting composition and especially in musical education his work was continuous and most beneficial. We will trace these two fields of labor separately.

The next great composition was nothing less than the first oratorio of America. This work, “St. Peter,” was first publicly performed at Portland, Me., June 3, 1873, and in 1874 it was again given, in Boston, by the Handel and Haydn Society. The contrapuntal skill, the mastery of the most difficult form of musical creation displayed in this work, mark another epoch in our native musical history. We shall find, before the end of our story, that Prof. Paine has been our pioneer in many directions, and well deserves the title of the most prominent American musician of the present.

The first American symphony came next, and this was deemed sufficiently classical to be performed under the direction of Theodore Thomas (who did more for music in the United States than any man who ever lived), and it was given by his orchestra, in Boston, January, 1876. This symphony, in C minor, made a tremendous sensation and evoked enthusiastic laudation in Boston and in New York. Mr. Paine says of it: “It was the turning-point in my career.”

In a personal letter to the present reviewer, Prof. Paine speaks of the gradually progressive and romantic character of his works from his “Tempest” symphonic poem, “Island Fantasy,” “Song of Promise,” on to “Azara,” and surely the growth evinced in these works may give their composer a right to be classed with the modern “progressive liberals.” The “Spring” symphony (Op. 34) also shows this tendency to modern freedom. It was written in 1880, and the composer ranks it the highest of his purely orchestral compositions. Its finale is a glorious outburst of thanksgiving, which may rank with any of the finales of modern symphonies.

It is not our purpose, in this article, to give a synopsis of all the compositions of Mr. Paine; a small volume would be necessary to do this worthily. But we may mention his “Phoebus Arise” and “The Nativity,” as dignified examples of a classical school, and his setting of “The Birds” as containing some very characteristic writing. Higher than these, in the present writer’s estimation are “Oedipus Tyrannus,” one of the loftiest works of the present repertoire, and “Azara,” which is one of the most important works yet written in America. The first performance of this work, which must surely come soon, will be another peak in our musical history.

Prof. Paine’s Influence on Musical Education.

We now turn back to trace the influence of Prof. Paine upon musical education in America. After his return from his early study in Germany, Mr. Paine was made organist and musical director at Harvard University. In 1862, he offered to deliver a series of lectures on music, in the college, without any remuneration. Even this generous offer met with much opposition, and, when the short course was finally permitted, it was not allowed to count in any way as regular work for a degree. The lectures, under such circumstances, attracted few students, and were finally abandoned.

With the advent of President Eliot, in 1870, however, new courses were begun and the musical lecture course resuscitated. The lectures dealt largely with musical forms, and under the new regime a course in harmony was added. Many students were attracted by this, and it became sufficiently popular to add to itself a course of instruction in counterpoint. In spite of the fact that these courses began to show considerable life and influence, they were still not allowed to count in any way for a degree, so that it was voluntary labor on the part of the students and even on the part of the instructor and lecturer, for Mr. Paine received no remuneration, and continued to donate his services for the good of the musical cause. But a good foundation had been laid, and, the work constantly increasing, in 1873, the course received its first official recognition, Mr. Paine being then appointed assistant professor, thereby becoming a regular member of the faculty of Harvard College.

If we reckon from the establishment of this office, Harvard University was the first large college to give a regular recognition to music by creating a chair devoted to that study. If, however, we date from the conferring of a full professorship, the science of music received its first recognition in the University of Pennsylvania, in 1875, for it was in that year that this university created a chair of music and appointed Hugh Archibald Clarke, its occupant, to a professorship which he still holds. It was in the same year that Harvard made its assistant professor into a full professor. The year 1875, therefore, is an important one in the history of music in American colleges. It must be born in mind, however, that while Pennsylvania was at the beginning of things in its professorship of 1875, Harvard had already enjoyed more than five years of instruction in its musical department.

This instruction was, and is still, devoted only to the theoretical branches. No attempt was made to teach the students singing or piano playing, or any execution of music whatever. The course is divided about as follows: “Music 1” is the first course, and teaches harmony to the freshmen. “Music 2” adds the beginnings of contrapuntal study during the sophomore year. There is a more advanced course in vocal counterpoint, which causes the students to analyze the works of the old Italian, German and English masters, and also starts them in the field of composition. There is a course on Musical History and Esthetics. There are advanced courses in Canon, Fugue, Sonata and Chamber-music composition. There are lectures upon the orchestral instruments, and finally there are courses in orchestral composition.

It will be seen that such a course is about as thorough as any purely theoretical curriculum could be. The technical element was added in 1905, when Harvard University affiliated with the New England Conservatory of Music and was thereby permitted to send students to play in the Conservatory orchestra, to the chorus work, to church music study, and to some of the regular classes.

Some of His Pupils.

What Professor Paine achieved during his many years of musical service at Harvard may be best illustrated by naming a few of the students who have attended his courses and have matriculated at Harvard University. Arthur Foote was one of the earliest of these, graduating before Paine had received the musical professorship, but remaining to take the college musical course, which was just then being established; Clayton Johns, who left the Institute of Technology and the study of architecture to take the musical course under Paine; Louis A. Coerne, who subsequently became instructor of the musical department of the Harvard Summer School, and Professor of Music at Smith College. The last-named is the first American who has had an opera performed in Europe. His “Zenobia” was performed with much success at the Stadt-Theatre, in Bremen, December 1, 1905, and several times since then. The list of eminent students is not yet exhausted: Henry T. Finck, the New York critic and author, was a member of the classes; Apthorp, Surette, Whitney, Lynes, F. S. Converse, and a host of others were either pupils of Prof. Paine or students in his college courses. In 1896, Mr. Walter R. Spalding became Prof. Paine’s assistant in elementary work and in 1902, he was made assistant-professor. At present, these courses are under the direction of Prof. Spalding, for, in 1905, after more than thirty-five years of service, Professor Paine resigned his position in university work. There was universal regret at his decision to do so, for, although sixty-seven years of age, Mr. Paine is still energetic and alert. Many honors and parting gifts were given him on the occasion of his departure.

An Adherent of Both Classic and Romantic Styles.

An active musical life that covers the period from 1860 to the present embraces every important event that has occurred in the higher realms of American music, and Professor Paine not only has lived through this period, but has been a prominent leader in the advance from first to last. In a recent letter to the present writer, Prof. Paine says: “It is an error to consider me bound to the past. I believe thoroughly in the future of music.” He certainly can be classed as a musician and composer in whom the elements of the old and the new are happily blended. He has written in the classical forms and he has also shown a romantic spirit in his more recent works; he has attained the dignity of the old Hellenic tragedy in his “Oedipus Tyrannus,” and he has given most modern touches in some parts of his opera “Azara,” notably in the Oriental dances and in the beautiful forest scenes. It will be a matter of much interest to the readers of The Etude to know that Prof. Paine is at present at work on a large symphonic poem upon an American subject—Abraham Lincoln. We can all hope that when we have the pleasure of hearing this work performed we shall be justified in calling it the American “Heroic” Symphony, upon a greater man than Napoleon, whom Beethoven honored in music. Lincoln is so preëminently a man of the American people that American characteristics must come to the fore in such a work.


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