88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

By 1860, American piano construction companies—Chickering, Mason and Hamlin, Knabe, the Steinweg (later Steinway) brothers, and others—were producing about 21,000 units a year, which came out to one instrument for every 1500 citizens.

Around this time, the music schools seemed to be most interested in pushing the German compositional methods, championed by the so-called Boston classicists. (French iconoclast composer Erik Satie remarked about the similar situation in Europe, saying “we need to get rid of the sauerkraut”). The custom with American music publishers at the time became to print title pages of American “serious” music in German (which, incidentally, almost became the official language of the United States, losing to English by only one vote at the Continental Congress). The Boston classicists did manage to give the European style a whiff of an American accent, while at the same time improving craftsmanship in the concert music composed then, administering a strict dose of harmony, form, and counterpoint to their students.

George Whitefield Chadwick—who ran the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston for 30 years—did compose popular vocal works and operas which incorporated American folk melodies and, in the manner of Janacek, built on rhythms which imitated natural speech (like his naturalistic, “verismo” opera The Padrone). Chadwick’s few piano works are full of humor and spry energy; like the classicists, he adopted the European scherzo, in the “Scherzino” in the Six Characteristic Pieces, Op. 7 (1882) and the Caprice II (1888), as an excuse to let his proverbial hair down, to be more adventurous.

Arthur Foote‘s Suite in D minor, Op. 15 (1887) opens with a Bach-like Prelude and Fugue, but what makes this piece more than just a dull exercise is his rich dramatic writing and Romantic melodies. This is apparent in the third movement of his piece entitled Romance, and in works like the composer’s Suite in E for Strings (1907). The fourth movement of the Suite in D minor is of course the expected scherzo-like Capriccio with rapid key modulations.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H. H. A. Beach)’s early solo piano works, like those in her Sketches, Op. 15 (1892), are richly varied in their harmony and melody but reflect Brahms-ian models. In the last movement of her powerful Piano Concerto in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 45 (1899), she finally discovered her personal voice which continued to develop and mature; for example, her remarkably different solo piece A Hermit Thrush at Morn (1921), composed one summer at the MacDowell Colony, not only imitates a bird call but develops sparsely textured modal material for the entire piece from that specific sound.

Other piano works by Ethelbert Nevin (Two Etudes, Op. 18,1891-1892, In the Form of a Romance, In the Form of a Scherzo), John Knowles Paine (Fuga Giocosa, Op. 41, No. 3, 1884), Arthur Whiting (Bagatelles, 1895), and Horatio Parker (La Sauterelle, Op. 49, No. 2, 1899, and also his renowned oratorio Hora novissima, 1892), share similar Germanic forms and harmonic style, although the composers manage to express their own individual voices within these confines.

Edward Alexander MacDowell successfully combined these new classicists’ methods with an abundant Romanticism. In the mid-1870s, MacDowell went to study piano and composition in Paris and Frankfurt, and by 1880 was beginning to gain an international reputation. After his marriage to a younger fellow student, MacDowell return to Germany another four years, relocated to Boston in 1888, and eventually became the founding head of Columbia University music department.

Although MacDowell wrote many small piano works with imagistic titles–Woodland Sketches, Op. 51 (1896): “To A Wild Rose,” “At An Old Trysting Place,” “A Deserted Farm,” “By A Meadow Brook,” etc.; the marvelously impressionistic Sea Pieces, Op. 55 (1898): “From A Wandering Iceberg,” “Starlight, Nautilus,” “In Mid-Ocean,” etc.; Fireside Tales, Op. 61 (1901-1902): “Of Salamanders,” “A Haunted House,” “By Smouldering Embers,” etc.; New England Idyls, Op. 62 (1901-1902): “An Old Garden,” “To An Old White Pine,” “From A Log Cabin,” “The Joy of Autumn,” etc—his primary aim, a kind of “pure” music aesthetic, was to create a mood or mental excitement in the listener that would lead that person to their own images; this is most clearly apparent in the four magnificent Sonatas, which surpass Liszt’s early full piano textures. They are all constructed in perfect sonata-allegro form, with bold statements of the main subjects in full chords, and with forward-rushing tumultuous passages and dramatic cries – MacDowell was a master of the passionate dissonance on the flatted sixth scale step, and, rhythmically, of the so-called Scotch snap. Many of the melodies suggest ancient sagas (e.g., the opening of the “Norse” Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 57, 1899). There are brief modulations that employ chromatics but do manage, despite what some critics—and even the composer himself, who was against nationalism in music—said of his work) they keep a definite American song quality. MacDowell often writes in alternating modes in the manner of Edvard Grieg with whom he shared a Scottish ancestry (the third sonata and the “Keltic” Sonata in E minor, Op. 59, 1900 are both dedicated to Grieg) but avoid Wagnerian chromaticism.

High treble crystalline patterns, mystical imagery (the call heard from afar) and sustained hymn-like passages in these Sonatas form a contrast to the inevitable scherzo sections which are fierce and biting in the manner of MacDowell’s famous Hexentanz (Witches’ Dance), Op. 17, No. 2 (1884). From our historical perspective, there are occasional gestures in his writing that sound melodramatic, but the music is entirely consistent and filled with implied narrative.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox