Rethinking the Repertoire #15 – George Whitefield Chadwick’s “Symphonic Sketches”

It is one of the enduring ironies of classical music that so much of today’s repertoire was written by such a small number of people. This post is the fifteenth in a multipart Arts Fuse series dedicated to reevaluating neglected and overlooked orchestral music. Comments and suggestions are welcome at the bottom of the page or to


By Jonathan Blumhofer

If George Whitefield Chadwick had been born in, say, London or Munich, he might be better known today than he is. However, he hailed from Lowell, Massachusetts, and that fact, rightly or wrongly, rather sealed his fate.

That’s not to say that, during his lifetime, he didn’t have a good run. Quite the contrary. For about fifty years, Chadwick was a towering figure in Boston’s music life. He was a widely-liked social figure and teacher. From 1897 to 1930, Chadwick was the director of New England Conservatory (having joined the faculty there in 1882): seventy years before Gunther Schuller, he transformed and modernized the school’s curriculum, basing it on the European model that had trained him so thoroughly.

As a conductor, he appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Handel and Haydn Society, who regularly played his music. Between 1880 and 1901, he also directed music festivals in Springfield and Worcester. And he served as an organist at various Boston churches, including Park Street and South Congregational.

Amid all his administrative work and performances, Chadwick also composed. Prolifically. His orchestral catalogue is substantial, including three numbered symphonies and several other multi-movement scores that might be called such, as well as numerous symphonic poems and overtures. There are also operas, oratorios, lots of choral music, many songs, and no small number of piano and organ pieces. It adds up to quite a tally.

Yet very little of that output is played today. Like the contemporaries he’s most closely associated with – the so-called “Boston Six” of Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, Edward MacDowell, John Knowles Paine, and Horatio Parker – Chadwick’s largely a footnote in American musical history, overshadowed by the generation of Gershwin and Copland and then those who followed them. Yet while it might be easy to dismiss some of the work of his contemporaries (especially the contributions of Paine and Parker) as boilerplate or warmed-over Schumann, the lot of them left some fine music.

Chadwick surely did. Yes, it’s Germanic in style – he studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, after all – and he wrote at a time when the models of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Beethoven were sine qua non for any serious American composer. But within that limitation, Chadwick found his own voice. How did he do it?

Well, above all, Chadwick was a truly great tunesmith. He knew a good melody when he saw one, and he wrote quite a few of them, to boot. They turn up almost everywhere in his music, from the giddy, youthful Rip Van Winkle Overture to the portentous Melpomene to his grand and solemn Symphony no. 3.

More than that, he was a true craftsman. In Germany he studied with composition with Carl Reinecke – whose students included Grieg, Charles Villiers Stanford, Arthur Sullivan, Christian Sinding, Leos Janacek, and Max Bruch – and Salomon Jadassohn, both of whom were renowned for their contrapuntal skills and melodic abilities. Chadwick clearly learned his lessons from both of them. Look no further than his magnificent, Brahmsian Symphony no. 2, with its sprightly scherzo and tight thematic unification, for proof of this.

American composer George Whitefield Chadwick --

American composer George Whitefield Chadwick — he hailed from Lowell, Massachusetts, and that fact, rightly or wrongly, rather sealed his fate.

On top of his technical abilities, he was a great orchestrator. Chadwick’s scoring consistently reflects the innovations of the day, be they those of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, or Strauss. He wasn’t an innovator, really, but, with a few exceptions, his way with instrumentation was largely his own: warm, idiomatic, and colorful.

Perhaps most remarkable, though, is the fact that Chadwick very much embraced his American-ness. He didn’t do this the same way that Ives did, with musical quotations of hymns and native songs and a complete rethinking of the Musical Way as handed down from Europe. Rather, Chadwick’s approach was more general, though pervasive to his output. Steven Ledbetter describes it thusly: “energy and high spirits, love of a good tune, a sense of humor, and a jaunty Yankee feeling of (in the words of Olin Downes) ‘snapping his fingers at the universe’.”

One hears these characteristics with abundant clarity in Chadwick’s Symphonic Sketches, a set of four movements written between 1895 and 1904. Each one depicts a specific scene as prefaced in the score by a poem.

The self-explanatory “Jubilee,” the Sketches’ first movement, smells pretty strongly of Dvorak’s influence. It shares an exuberant mood and key signature with the Carnival Overture. And Dvorak’s favorite rhythmic games and instrumental textures make appearances here and there.

But it’s more than just a gloss on one of Chadwick’s great contemporaries. The second theme, for instance – a gorgeous, sweeping, “American” tune, if ever there was one – is pure Chadwick (and the way he accompanies it with a habanera rhythm is certainly worthy of Ives, even if it’s harmonically tamer). So is the short, four-bar brass transition into it, which seems to anticipate any number of Western soundtracks by four or five decades. And even the opening gesture, its Dvorak-ian lift and phrasing notwithstanding, is treated and developed in ways that fit perfectly into Chadwick’s musical argument: the European influence may be there and it may be obvious, he seems to be saying, but I have my own ideas about what to do with it.

The subsequent movements bear this out. In the second, “Noel,” the prominent English horn solo seems an obvious nod to the equivalent in Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. But Chadwick goes his own route. There are three iterations of its melody in full, two after the opening woodwind solo. On the second time, it’s played by solo violin over the accompaniment of harp and pizzicato strings. For the third, the tune is passed to the brass and a descant of sorts appears in the strings. It’s a wonderfully subtle stroke made even more powerful by a short reprise of the refrain in the violins heard just afterwards. This then gracefully elides into a violin solo-led coda.

In the scherzo, “Hobgoblin,” Chadwick follows the model of any number of his 19th-century forebears, channeling the formal procedures of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and others. But there’s a lightness of touch to everything that happens in this movement. The principle theme – a gamboling motive outlining the interval of a fourth – finds its way into just about everything that’s going on, often (in the syncopated sections and hemiola writing, especially) evoking riotous, impish glee: if there’s anyplace in his output that Chadwick duplicated the joie de vivre of his Second Symphony’s scherzo, it’s here.

For the finale, “A Vagrom Ballad,” he went in a totally new direction. This whole movement is meant to depict a hobo skit and it’s filled with touches that reference those vaudeville acts of the day: sudden, humorous starts and stops; frantic changes of mood; even a “soft-shoe” melody (played by bass clarinet and bassoon). There are a couple of wonderfully unexpected moments, too, including a pair of bass clarinet cadenzas and some evocative writing for harp. It’s all brilliantly tuneful, personable, and filled with wit.

In recent years there has been a welcome increase in interest in Chadwick’s music. Still, his champions remain too few and his profile too low. George Whitefield Chadwick was one of America’s first great composers. His music might not have broken any molds of the day. But who cares about that? It’s wholly distinctive, sweepingly melodic, thoroughly enjoyable, and wonderfully expressive. It deserves to be played and ought to be heard. (One hopes, among other things, that the Boston Symphony’s upcoming “Boston in Leipzig” exchanges will encourage the orchestra to dig into the great American music it championed pre-Koussevitzky.)

If you don’t believe me, check out Chadwick’s not unimpressive discography (thanks in no small part to Naxos Records’ “American Classics” series). Start with the Symphonic Sketches. The go back through Rip Van Winkle, the numbered symphonies, and the suites. Follow those up with the string quartets and tone poems (Tam O’Shanter is a great starting point for the latter). Then give the solo piano music and songs a listen. When you get through it all – if not well before – you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with the Leipzig critic who decreed, on hearing Chadwick’s Third Symphony in that city in 1905, “I hold George W. Chadwick to be the most important living Anglo-American composer – Edward Elgar not excepted.” Elgar, in case you don’t know, had recently been feted by no less a luminary than Richard Strauss – who knew a thing or two about the subject – as a leading musical “progressivist.” Yes, indeed: Chadwick really was that good.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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