About this Recording
8.559213 - CHADWICK: Symphony No. 2 / Symphonic Sketches
English  German 

George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931)
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 21 • Symphonic Sketches (1895-1904)

The life and career of George Chadwick reads like the quintessential Horatio Alger American success story. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts to a family tracing its roots to the 1630s, Chadwick entered the world under tragic circumstances. His mother died from complications of his birth, leading to a strained relationship with his father. In a sense, these early struggles provided the fuel leading to the greatness of his achievements. An older brother taught Chadwick musical rudiments and by the age of fifteen he worked regularly as an organist. He did not complete high school but earned enough as a clerk in his father’s insurance office to attend the New England Conservatory. Realising the need for more rigorous training, he travelled to Leipzig in 1877 studying composition at the conservatory and winning awards. Additional study in Munich and Giverny, France, broadened his outlook, skills and confidence. A ‘finished’ musician upon his return to Boston in 1880, he began his career in earnest as organist, teacher, conductor and composer. His genius as an educator blossomed in 1882 when he joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory. Chadwick became director in 1897, reshaping it into a modern conservatory. His textbook Harmony: a Course of Study became an instant classic. By the 1890s Chadwick was acknowledged as one of America’s finest composers, if not the finest. His impact on American music is inestimable as he taught many of the composers of the following generation and influenced others, demonstrating that there could be a distinctively American style of classical music comparable in quality to Europe. The arrival in the 1920s of a generation of composers of immigrant origin, Gershwin, Copland and others, pushed Chadwick into obscurity. The post- World War II resurgence of interest in the roots of American music has re-established Chadwick’s importance.

Chadwick was undoubtedly America’s greatest symphonist between the Civil War and the 1920s. His orchestral works are his most distinctive. The two works on this album, the Second Symphony and Symphonic Sketches, are his most popular symphonic works and wonderful introductions to the essence of his style. The Second Symphony of 1886 was created over a three-year period. The scherzo had its first performance independently in 1884 to great acclaim; the first movement, known as Introduction and Allegro, appeared the following year. Chadwick’s understanding of symphonic logic creates a unified whole.

The work begins with unaccompanied horn intoning a melody serving as a unifying motto in Romantic fashion. The pentatonic or five-note scale found in folk-music flavours the motto, imparting an American feeling reminiscent of Native American and African-American music. A rhythmic figure extracted from the motto provides impetus, leading to the faster main body of the movement. The Allegro unfolds in sonata form as expected, providing many echoes of early Romantic symphonies, particularly Schubert’s Fifth and Schumann’s Spring, all coincidentally in the key of B flat major. The fresh, open-air feeling of the music is enhanced by hunting fanfares in the horns. Solo horn presents the contrasting second theme, again with distinctive pentatonic colouring. In the recapitulation, solo trumpet takes over this theme. Throughout, there is a wonderful lightness and quicksilver grace in the music and Chadwick’s skilful orchestration. A faster coda brings the movement to a proud, joyous close.

The scherzo follows. The most distinctive and original movement, it demonstrates Chadwick’s genius at writing light, elfin music in the Mendelssohnian style. Solo oboe followed by other winds presents the main theme, again based on the pentatonic scale. William Foster Apthorp captured the spirit of the movement, calling it ‘a gem. The themes … are … original’ with a ‘quasi-Irish humorousness’ in the main theme (‘it positively winks at you’). The bouncy, witty mood is sustained by deft, magical orchestration.

The slow movement is the deepest in emotion, reflecting the influence of Tchaikovsky. A sombre melody at the opening rises to brass fanfares and Dvořák-flavoured wind colours. A much faster middle section features brass flourishes and a noble theme in the strings. The return of the opening mood is capped by a hymnic coda reflecting the Protestant New England hymnody of Chadwick’s background.

The finale returns to the affirmative extroversion of the earlier movements. Again in sonata form, a thrilling opening with interlocking string figures gives way to a second theme in low strings with a breathless, syncopated accompaniment. The mood is reminiscent of the finale of Schumann’s Spring in its freshness and energetic peacefulness as it builds to a happy close. The Second Symphony confirmed Chadwick’s stature as a major American composer; Phillip Hale found it ‘the work of a musician by birth and breed. It is an honor not only to (him) but to his country’.

Like the Second Symphony, the Symphonic Sketches came to fruition over time, Jubilee and Noel in 1895, A Vagrom Ballad the following year, and Hobgoblin in 1904. It was not only Chadwick’s most successful work but possibly his greatest. A symphony in all but name, it is also his most American in its portrayal of scenes of contemporary American life in the manner of Norman Rockwell. It is typical of his later work in which his style traits are intensified with sprinklings of contemporary modernism. Each movement is prefaced by poetry indicating the mood or scene expressed.

The dichotomy expressed in the poem’s two stanzas of Jubilee determines the music’s form, even its instrumentation. Fast, loud and extremely colourful music is contrasted, rondo-style, with slower, reflective music. Chadwick’s student and close friend Horatio Parker heard the flavouring of ‘Negro tunes’ in the fast section and ‘Americanness’ ‘in the high and volatile spirits…the sheer rough and tumble of it at its fullest moments’. A habanera rhythm supports a pentatonic melody reminiscent of Camptown Races with harmonica and guitar-like sounds in the orchestra. Parker also found the abrupt juxtaposition of the two moods ‘American’.

Noel paints a scene worthy of Currier and Ives. The Christmas manger scene reminded Chadwick of his beloved wife and their second son Noel, calling forth music of great tenderness and emotion. A slow tempo, many sustained notes and legato muted strings create a static winter landscape over which the English horn, one of Chadwick’s favourite colours, spins its melody. It builds to passionate, warm colours before coming to rest in the maternal peace of harp harmonics and solo violin.

Hobgoblin, prefaced by a couplet from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, calls to mind Mendelssohn’s great scherzo, but Victor Yellin, Chadwick’s biographer, rightly hears this ‘English Puck domesticated to Massachusetts in October’. It is a Halloween piece with fantastic colours in the orchestra and crisp rhythms.

A Vagrom Ballad is the most adventurous in idiom and portrayal. It depicts a tramp or hobo skit from vaudeville days. A lugubrious cadenza for the bass clarinet, a parody of the Act V solo from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, improbably launches a bassoon/bass clarinet ‘soft-shoe’ melody. Various interruptions, including trumpet and snare drum fanfares, and xylophone solo, threaten to break the music apart, indicative of American ‘fooling around’ in Parker’s opinion. The melody runs headlong into a slow section in which impressionistic effects such as harp glissandi, woodwind trills, and ponticello paint a bathetic transformation of the melody. As it sinks lower in range, it calls forth the bass clarinet cadenza. Without warning, the opening returns prestissimo as the actor, having rung emotion out of his viewers, runs off with a tip of the hat and a wink of the eye.

David Ciucevich

Close the window