A Forgotten Voice
December 13, 2012
by JoAnn Falletta
As an American conductor, I am always especially proud to record American works—of all different styles and genres. Thanks to Naxos’s commitment to American music, I have had the privilege of recording a number of wonderful American voices, and have seen the CDs sold around the world, introducing thousands of people to our country’s music.
This October Klaus Heymann presented us with an unusual request—to record the works of John Knowles Paine with the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland. It was a superb opportunity for me to delve into a period of American art that was less known to me. We certainly credit Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein with solidifying an “American” music with their jazz and folk inflections, with their unique approach to eclecticism and the roots of our country’s heritage. But these composers are 20th century artists—what about an earlier American school? What was happening in music in the United States in the 19th century?
This Naxos project opened a fascinating door for me in researching the first truly American composers. John Knowles Paine (1839–1906) is credited by some musicologists with writing the first actual symphony in our country—a piece that was enthusiastically received in 1876. Paine’s work was based on the European traditions he cherished, building upon the beautiful inspiration of the early German romanticism he learned from his studies in Berlin. After establishing himself in Boston, Massachusetts, Paine, along with George Chadwick, Amy Beach, Horation Parker, Edward MacDowell and Arthur Foote became the foundation of a school of composition in the United States, proudly writing music for their communities that transferred and expanded the European tradition on American soil. With this Naxos recording, I discovered an early American voice that was strong, sure and unique—capturing the past but definitely looking toward the future of the new world. Paine’s music is lyrical, finely structured and rhythmically vibrant, with a strong melodic impetus and sterling craftsmanship, and betrays lovely traces of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Schubert. It is music of energy and imagination, and deserves far more performances and hearings. Paine was appointed Harvard’s first ever professor of music, where his strong musical personality influenced three generations of students. Hopefully the new Naxos project will introduce Paine to a large number of listeners and will present him as the earliest significant American composer, writing long before the more familiar names of Copland and Gershwin, and will gain for him recognition as the first in the pantheon of US composers. Why was such important work forgotten? I believe that this unfortunate neglect was largely political—after World War I, it became important for music to sound “American”, and works which resonated with German tradition were dismissed. We sadly lost sight of the artistry of John Knowles Paine and composers of similar influences because it was not popular to sound in any way “Germanic”.
The Ulster Orchestra played this unknown music with their usual élan, reading quickly and with an impressive synthesis of Paine’s style. For our first CD, we recorded his Symphony No 1 (the historic first “American” symphony), the Tempest, and the Overture to Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
For our next recording, the Ulster Orchestra and I will take on the challenge of Paine’s Second Symphony and a Prelude from his opera Azara. This wonderful opera had actually been scheduled to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1905, but the plans had to be abandoned because the Italian singers at the Met found that they could not learn an opera in English. Sadly, the opera has languished since then, and we are happy that we will have a chance to record the Prelude.
Our recording team of Tim Handley and Phil Rowlands were superb, and once again we enjoyed the chance to record in the gorgeous acoustics of The Ulster Hall.
Photos from the recording session:
Ulster Orchestra Biography & Discography
JoAnn Falletta Biography & Discography
John Knowles Paine Biography & Discography