Magazine article Gramophone

Orchestrating the Nation

Magazine article Gramophone

Orchestrating the Nation

Article excerpt

Orchestrating the Nation

The Nineteenth-Century

American Symphonic Enterprise

By Douglas W Shadle

Oxford University Press, HB, 330 pp, 35.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-0-19-935864-9

Edgar Allen Poe never really knew success. He was celebrated by the French, but the American literary establishment regarded him as an outlier for almost 150 years. His status as one of the three great American poets of the 19th century, alongside Whitman and Dickinson, is a very recent phenomenon. Poe's nemesis, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, enjoyed prestige and wealth unparalleled among his literary contemporaries. Today, however, he is more esteemed as a pioneer of comparative literature studies than as a poet. Herman Melville, whose masterpiece Moby Dick appeared in 1851, lived out the remaining 40 years of his life in relative obscurity. Recognition of his achievements as a novelist began only in the 1920s. Whatever the ups and downs attached to the reputations of these literary figures, their names remain at least familiar.

Douglas W Shadle's new book, Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise, suggests that their composer contemporaries, particularly the symphonists among them, have been essentially relegated to oblivion. Shadle identifies some 55 native or resident composers who, between them, produced about 100 symphonies in the 19th century. He then focuses on a smaller group--Anthony Philip Heinrich, George Frederick Bristow, William Henry Fry, Robert Stoepel, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, John Knowles Paine, Ellsworth Phelps, George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, and George Templeton Strong (son of the diarist)--whose varied careers reflect the challenges faced by American composers in a largely eurocentric critical and institutional milieu.

As Shadle sums up in his epilogue, 'None of this music survived as part of the standard performance repertoire after the turn of the century because its most powerful potential cultivators--critics and conductors--had maintained inhospitable attitudes toward it before it had a chance to thrive.' Although he claims not to be concerned with the inherent value of individual symphonies, Shadle is the composers' enthusiastic advocate and it is that enthusiasm which enlivens his narrative. As for the inhospitable critics and conductors, two stand out as arch-villains. John Sullivan Dwight, editor of Dwight's Journal of Music in Boston between 1852 and 1881, looms large as representative of the often condescending and occasionally vicious music criticism that characterised American journalism of the day. …

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