Henry F. Gilbert: A Bio-Bibliography

Article excerpt

Henry F. Gilbert: A Bio-Bibliography. By Sherrill V. Martin. (Bio-Bibliographies in Music, 93.) Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. [xii, 296 p. ISBN 0-313-27445-2. $79.95.] Index, discography.

During the second decade of the twentieth century, some writers on music considered Henry Franklin Belknap Gilbert (1868-1928) America's foremost composer. Sherrill V. Martin has revealed in the present bio-bibliography the riches of MSS 35, The Henry Gilbert Papers in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University (see finding aid at http://webtext.library.yale.edu/xml2html/music/gil-col.htm [this and subsequent Web sites accessed 25 May 2005]) and has compiled sufficient information with commentary to help clarify, at the chronological distance of many decades, how a composer now little known or performed attained such stature. This publication follows the usual format for bio-bibliographies: a brief biography followed by citations with annotations of (1) a list of works and performances; (2) a discography; (3) a general bibliography; (4) a bibliography of the subject's writings; (5) a bibliography of works and performances, i.e., mostly reviews and commentaries, and concluded by (6) appendices, and (7) an index.

If Gilbert was not universally accepted in his day as the successor to Edward A. MacDowell (1860-1908), whom some mentioned as the foremost composer in America at the turn of the twentieth century, he was actually MacDowell's first composition student following the elder composer's return from Europe in 1884. And within twenty years after this apprenticeship, Gilbert became generally known as the foremost "Americanist" among composers.

In the second issue of the Musical Quarterly (1, no. 2 [April 1915]: 169-80), Gilbert wrote an article, "The American Composer," a manifesto of sorts in which he outlines the state of music in America, the aesthetic (i.e., pro-European) prejudices and economic difficulties facing the composer, and some examples of successful enterprises (the annual festival of the Litchfield County Choral Union at Norfolk, Connecticut; the MacDowell Memorial Colony at Peterborough, New Hampshire; and the "High Jinks" of San Francisco's Bohemian Club), along with suggestions about the appropriate incorporation of folk music (namely, "Indian and Negro tunes and rhythms, Spanish-American tunes, and even the familiar Foster songs," pp. 178-79). He was hopeful that new paths would be followed, and he saw "here and there a gleam of something big and vital" (p. 179). This was in 1915.

This message resonated with certain critics, above all Olin Downes (1886-1955), who wrote for the Boston Post from 1906-1924 and the New York Times from 1924 until his death. As a reviewer and commentator, Downes was very influential. He wrote an article for the Musical Quarterly, entitled "An American Composer" (4, no. 1 [January 1918]: 23-36), in which, speaking of Gilbert, he declared: "The performance of the 'Comedy Overture' appears to me as a more significant event than the performance of any other American composition which it has been my fortune to know" (p. 36). (Gilbert said in a letter of 1924 that he considered this article the best written about him; see the "Bibliography of Gilbert's Writings" in the present bio-bibliography, citation BG137.) Martin cites this and other articles, letters, and reviews by Downes throughout (see especially the annotations in citations B95-B117 in the "General Bibliography" section for consistently laudatory quotes).

Gilbert's relationships with other contemporaries as well can easily be traced through the index (pp. 289-96). Composer Arthur Farwell (1872-1952), for example, included a number of Gilbert's works in his comparatively short-lived serial publication known as the Wa Wan Press (quarterly, 1901-06; monthly, 1907-11). The two became close associates in 1902. As early as 1907, Farwell observed eloquently, "the value for America of Mr. Gilbert's work up to a comparatively recent time lies in its power to liberate us from convention of musical expression which we have come to regard as fixed and final, and to show us new modes, both logical and beautiful, of tonal utterance" (see citation B145). …