GEORGE WHITEFIELD CHADWICK (1854 - 1931)
George Whitefield Chadwick was proud of his old New England stock, traceable to 1630. He felt no need to prove his nationality, yet he became the first composer of concert music whose works often show the snap, the wit, the independence of the American.
As a young man Chadwick heard the première of Paine’s First Symphony and was inspired with the idea that an American could compose symphonies. He defied his puritanical father to study music professionally, even after he had been removed from school to work in his father’s insurance office. He studied on his own while functioning as a music teacher and developed a refined taste in literature and art. Study in Leipzig with Jadassohn and in Munich with Rheinberger (1877–1880) gave him a professional finish. He made an early mark with the Rip Van Winkle overture, performed in both Germany and America.
Chadwick settled in Boston for the remaining half century of his life. He modernised the New England Conservatory during a directorship that lasted from 1897 to 1930, thus giving American musicians a place to pursue advanced studies in their own country. He taught several generations of American composers, and he was a pioneer in making professional instruction available to women and racial minorities. He also conducted a great deal, but, most important, he composed in almost every medium from chamber music to symphonies and operas. His special gift in scherzos and light-hearted music was noticed from the beginning and strikes us as one of his most “American” characteristics. Chadwick’s music was inspired at first by such masters as Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Wagner, and later also by French influences, but he fused these into a personal style growing out of his familiarity with hymn tunes and folk-dances, and popular music.
Despite his interrupted education, Chadwick became a welcome member of Boston’s cultural community. Still he may have chosen classical allusions for the titles of so many pieces out of a self-conscious awareness that many of his colleagues had graduated from Harvard. No fewer than three of his concert overtures are named after one of the Muses: Thalia (1883) after the Muse of comedy, Melpomene (1887) after the Muse of tragedy, and Euterpe (1903) after the Muse of music.
All his life Chadwick was the friend of artists and collected their work. He frequently sat all day with a painter friend, composing his music while the other painted. Twice he found inspiration for large compositions in works of sculpture.
Chadwick’s last years were dogged by ill health. His pace of composition all but stopped in his final decade. He died on 4April 1931.