GEORGE TEMPLETON STRONG (1856 - 1948)
George Templeton Strong was born in New York on 26 May 1856. His father, a lawyer and a friend of Abraham Lincoln, was president of the New York Philharmonic Society. Strong’s parents were both amateur musicians and encouraged their son’s study of the piano, oboe and viola. Attendance at the Philharmonic rehearsals and concerts was another part of his education, although his father opposed his wish to become a professional musician. Against his fathers will, Strong occasionally undertook engagements as an oboist and English horn player for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In 1879 he travelled to Europe to study at the Leipzig Conservatory with Salomon Jadassohn, Richard Hofmann and Joachim Raff, and to earn his living as a viola player in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Afterwards, he settled in Wiesbaden, where he completed his Symphony No 2 “Sintram” in 1888. During his years of study in Germany he had frequented the circles of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner and his 1883 symphonic poem Undine was dedicated to Liszt, who approved of the work.
In 1891 Strong accepted the invitation of his friend, the composer Edward MacDowell, with whom he had lived and studied in Wiesbaden and who meanwhile had returned to the United States, to work as a teacher of counterpoint and composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston. For health reasons and because he found the work unsatisfactory, Strong returned to Europe two years later and settled in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva. He lived there until his death, on 27 June 1948. Although in his Swiss years, Strong dedicated more of his time to watercolour painting than to composition (his wind quintet of 1933 bears the title Cinq Aquarelles and a song cycle of 1931 the title Three Watercolors for Voice and Orchestra), he took an active part in the musical life of Geneva, which was at that time focused around the concerts of the conductors Carl Ehrenberg and Ernest Ansermet. It was the latter who had directed the first performance of Strong’s suite Die Nacht in 1913 and his symphonic poem Le Roi Arthur in 1918, besides the European premières of the revised version of Undine and of selections from his three Suites for orchestra, entitled D’un cahier d’images (1939–43).
The list of Strong’s compositions includes further pieces for orchestra, with or without solo instruments, among which are Une vie d’artiste and Americana for violin and two Suites and an Elégie for cello. His chamber music includes a considerable number of compositions for piano, both for two and for four hands, works for strings with piano and others for chamber groups of various kinds, including string quartets. His vocal compositions include four cantatas for soli, chorus and orchestra, songs with orchestra, such as Songs of an American Peddler and An Indian Chief’s Reply, examples of Strong’s rare American-inspired compositions, and others with piano. Various arrangements of works by Bach, Haydn, Schubert, Raff, Weber, Mussorgsky and Stephen Foster may also be mentioned.
Like MacDowell, Strong should be considered an American composer, even though both musicians had their musical training in Germany. Their style is mainly inspired by those of their European teachers, or model composers, Raff, Liszt, Wagner, or even Grieg, César Franck and Tchaikovsky. Edward McDowell (1861–1908) had returned to his country to make a living as a pianist and teacher, but Strong decided to return to live in Europe because he had realised that America would not give him a secure chance as a composer. He may have followed the words of MacDowell, who had said that if his own music was to be performed only because he was an American, he would prefer not having it performed at all. Ironically, MacDowell would eventually win more success with his compositions in his own country than Strong in Europe. His return to America led him subsequently to write a greater number of works inspired by native subjects or music than Strong, so that today he is considered a more American composer, and this even after having officially shown his reluctance towards nationalism in music. Strong would eventually be forced to realise that in Europe, and especially in Switzerland, he could not make his fortune either. The years following the turn of the century brought marked changes in music, and after Wagner and Liszt, Romanticism with its effusive tone poems and symphonies seemed to have no further place, unless it could demonstrate sympathy with modern tendencies, as had been the case with Richard Strauss, whose astonishing early stylistic development is the best example of musical evolution in Germany between the 1890s and the 1920s. It should also be said that Strauss was a professional conductor and composer of operas, unlike either McDowell or Strong, and that may have also have handicapped the growth of their international reputation.
Some of Strong’s published views on modern music can be considered as extremely honest, but also as too candid and dangerous for the time when they were written. He loved Richard Strauss, Glazunov, Mahler and Ravel, since they were “able to draw lines”, and their music was “not cubism”. For Stravinsky, for example, Strong had no time at all, since dissonant chords were generally “too easy to set”, and they should be used only “in a way cayenne pepper is used in culinary art”, and, again of Stravinsky, “a page consisting of nothing but such chords is paralyzing and congealing, and at bottom anti-melodic, and music without melody is but half-music”.
What Strong could be reproached for today is that after having written some highly ambitious and valuable earlier works, he did not venture to produce others on a similar scale, or to allow his style any further development. All his orchestral works written later, most of which were conceived for smaller instrumental forces, lack the strong and impetuous personality of Sintram and Le Roi Arthur. Some other orchestral works of the later period, such as the Cahiers d’images, are mainly orchestrations of earlier piano pieces. In any case, looking at Strong’s lovely watercolour paintings, produced during the last 30 years of his life, one can hardly imagine that they were coming from the same hand as that which had many years earlier written such powerful music. And what if Strong had returned to Germany instead of Switzerland? Or if he had accepted MacDowell’s second invitation to settle again in New England? Either of these might have been perhaps better decisions, since, as we learn from his letters, he never really felt at home in Switzerland, where he thought that people always considered him a foreigner, so that he could never really make close friendships there.
It might be added that a very useful biography of GT Strong by William C. Loring, Jr, An American Romantic – Realist Abroad was published in 1996 by Scarecrow Press, Inc, as part of the series Composers of North America.