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CHARLES WAKEFIELD CADMAN  

(1881 - 1946)

Best remembered as the composer of the art songs At Dawning and From the Land of Sky-blue Water, Charles Wakefield Cadman has been in virtual eclipse during the past half century. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, however, the American musical community seems much more tolerant of our musical ancestors and their quest to forge an American music idiom.

Although Cadman held his classical works in great esteem, his life-long association with the Indianist Movement in American music (circa 1880-1920) made it difficult for the works to be judged on their individual merits. His output includes five operas, orchestral suites, chamber works, cantatas, piano works, violin works and over 250 songs.

Cadman’s musical background was completely American. One of the earliest American composers not schooled in the European tradition, his music reflects an independence of thought influenced strictly by Native American sources. If Arthur Farwell was the theoretician of the so-called Indianist Movement, then Cadman can be considered its most brilliant populariser.

Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on 24th December, 1881, Cadman traced his musical background to his maternal ancestry. His great-grandfather, the celebrated Samuel Wakefield (1799-1895), built the first pipe organ west of the Allegheny Mountains, wrote books on theology and music, and composed early-American sacred music. Cadman began piano lessons at the age of thirteen, and soon composed several simple pieces. Abandoning formal education the following year, he financed his musical studies as a church organist as an errand boy. In Pittsburgh, he briefly studied harmony and theory with Leo Oehmler (1902), orchestration with Luigi von Kunits (1908), concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and with Emil Paur, its conductor. This was the sum total of Cadman’s musical education. In 1908, he was appointed music editor and critic of the Pittsburgh Dispatch.

Although Cadman was exposed to Indian lore as a youth, it was not until 1907, after reading Indian Story and Song by the ethnologist Alice Fletcher, that he began to compose works based on Indian melodies. In 1909, he ventured to Santa Fe in New Mexico, seeking a cure for a tubercular condition. Here he corresponded with Fletcher, who urged him to visit the Omaha Indians in Nebraska. Following her advice, he met Francis La Flesche, son of a French trader and an Omaha woman. Together, Cadman and La Flesche made cylinder recordings and transcriptions of Omaha tribal melodies for the Smithsonian Institution. Cadman learned to play their instruments and later “idealized” (adapting the melody into a nineteenth century harmonic idiom) their music for concert audiences. Striving to make the works “artistically palatable”, he legitimized this in an article for the Musical Quarterly (July, 1915) on TheIdealizationof Indian Music.

Cadman’s early works did not enjoy popularity until From the Land of the Sky-blue Water was given an encore by the soprano Lillian Nordica at a Cleveland, Ohio recital in 1909. His most successful song, At Dawning, written in 1906, followed a similar course, being popularised by the tenors John McCormack and Alessandro Bonci. The words of both songs were written by Nelle Richmond Eberhart (1877-1944), a neighbour of the Cadman household during his youth and the person who introduced him to Indian lore.

With the success of his songs, Cadman lived comfortably and pursued serious composition. His opera, Shanewis (‘The Robin Woman’), based on authentic Indian melodies, was given by the Metropolitan Opera in 1918. It was the first American opera with a contemporary American setting staged at the Met, the first American opera with a libretto by a woman (Eberhart) at the Met, and the first American opera to be performed in a second season.

By the early 1920s, Cadman had become a self-proclaimed expert on American Indian music, and toured North America and Europe delivering his celebrated ‘Indian Talk.’ When not on tour, he returned to Los Angeles, where he had lived since 1916. He was a charter member of the founding organization of the Hollywood Bowl and a featured Bowl soloist seven times in his career.

With Hollywood close by, it was natural for Cadman to gravitate toward the film industry. In 1929, he was hired by Fox Studios to score motion pictures. His scores included The Sky Hawk, Captain of the Guard, Women Everywhere, and Harmony at Home. Before leaving Fox, he became embroiled in a public dispute with the composer Dmitri Tiomkin over the future direction of music for film. Cadman felt the music should be based on classical or traditional styles and was opposed to Tiomkin’s popular jazz approach. Eventually, Cadman would relent but only after his severance with the studios was complete.

By the early 1930s, interest in the Indianist Movement had declined and Cadman saw his popularity erode. Sales of his songs had decreased and personal funds were depleted. Though he was voted the Most Popular American Composer of 1930 by the National Federation of Music Clubs, he recognised the change in public taste. European-trained American composers like Copland, Piston, and Harris were presenting a more sophisticated sound to the American public. Cadman intensified his classical output but the critics still stereotyped him as a composer of “Indian melodies.”

As late as 1935, the California Pacific International Exposition at San Diego declared 4th September Cadman Day. It was based entirely on Cadman’s past association with American Indian music. The following year, Cadman again received national prominence when he resigned from the American Music Committee of the Berlin Olympic Games Festival. He declared the Nazi régime ‘repugnant.’

Cadman spent the last decade of his life composing and promoting his ‘serious works.’ These attained little acceptance beyond southern California. An exception was the 1940 national broadcast of the première of his Pennsylvania Symphony with Albert Coates conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The symphony received enthusiastic acclaim but Cadman could not secure a second performance with a major Eastern orchestra. The problem was twofold. Cadman handled his own publicity ineffectively, and deteriorating political conditions in Europe had brought many talented European composers and conductors to American shores. Competition for performances was intense.

Living the last years of his bachelor life in semi-frugality at a modest hotel in Los Angeles, Cadman tried to persevere though in poor health and depression. He died on 30th December, 1946, a forgotten and “vanished” American.

Role: Classical Composer 
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