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ClassicsOnline Home » CHADWICK: Thalia / Melpomene / Euterpe
George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931)
Thalia Melpomene Euterpe The Angel of Death Aphrodite
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 Paines 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 fathers 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 modernized 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. Chadwicks 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 Bostons 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.
Chadwick described Thalia as an overture "intended to suggest the sentiment, humor, and dramatic action of an imaginary emotional comedy." When it was first performed by the Boston Symphony on 13th January, 1883, the Boston Transcript noted that it "took all hearts by storm." Oddly enough, the score was not heard again in Chadwicks lifetime. Eventually he reused some of the musical material in a 1910 theatre piece, Everywoman. An elaborate clarinet cadenza brings in a horn melody that will be important later. Once the fast tempo arrives, the main theme is a light-hearted dance. The horns sing a march with a lively countermelody in the strings for the second theme. Chadwick develops these materials with great energy. The pensive theme from the introduction returns to work out its destiny, intertwining the light-hearted and the sentimental, eventually ringing forth in triumph.
Melpomene is a companion piece to Thalia, a "prelude to an imaginary tragedy." By the time it was first performed on Christmas Eve, 1887, Chadwick was regarded as a master composer of the scherzo, but Melpomene was his most often performed work during his lifetime, and the most highly regarded, precisely because it had no element of humour or comedy. Here Chadwick showed his ability to be entirely serious, and seriousness was considered essential to great art. The opening is a clear reference to most notorious musical tragedy of the age, Wagners Tristan. Chadwicks opening tempo, Lento e dolente, is the equivalent of Wagners Langsam und schmachtend, and his opening gesture outlines the notes A-F followed by a telling chord, just as Wagners score does, but Chadwick makes this reference to show that he can and will proceed in a quite different way, to indicate that he is his own man.
The last of the Muse overtures came sixteen years later and strikes a different aesthetic stance. Euterpe was composed in October 1903 and first given by the Boston Symphony on 23rd April, 1904. Here Chadwick had some leeway in his treatment. The overture opens in a mood of dark lamentation, marked by a keening trumpet melody. Little by little the tempo speeds up and tiny figures, sometimes syncopated, turn into a lively Allegro. A sudden pause, a horn chord, and a settling into the new key leads to the second theme: the dark opening theme now sweeter, less somber. Chadwick invents lively interactions of all these materials, with a spirit of wit underlying even the pensive passages. By the time the overture reaches its coda, it is clear that Euterpe is an American muse, waving a jaunty farewell to the Old World.
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. The specific impetus for Aphrodite (1910-11) was a classical head of the goddess in Bostons Museum of Fine Arts. The music does not attempt in any way to tell any of the mythical adventures of Aphrodite. Chadwick noted in the score, "In ancient times statues of Aphrodite, goddess of love and of sailors, were placed on or near the seashore. This Symphonic Fantasie or Tone Poem is an attempt to suggest in music the poetic and tragic scenes which may have passed before the sightless eyes of such a goddess." Aphrodite is thus a panorama in music, a series of musical images linked by a theme related to the goddess: Moonlight on the sea; Storm; Requiem; The Lovers (solo violin and solo horn in duet); Children Playing; The Approach of a Great Army and Hymn to Aphrodite; Moonlight (partial repetition); Finale.
Chadwicks last years were dogged by ill health. His pace of composition all but stopped in his final decade. The Angel of Death is his last programmatic orchestral composition, inspired by a bas-relief carved by Daniel Chester French for the tomb of the sculptor Martin Milmore. He completed the work on 3rd January, 1918; Walter Damrosch led the New York Symphony Society in the première on 9th February, 1919, in a memorial concert for Theodore Roosevelt. The layout bears a clear similarity to that of Strausss Death and Transfiguration, though here the subject is not on his death-bed but actively creating. French depicts a sculptor in a Greek tunic with his hammer raised to strike the chisel that will complete the work, but his hand is caught by the hovering angel, causing the masterpiece to be left not quite complete. Busy music depicts the artist at work, but periodically a sudden low brass chorale contributes ominous foreboding. The artist has a vision of the masterpiece, but the brass chorale overwhelms him; a drum-roll identifies the fatal moment. The artist dies, but after a moments silence, a bass clarinet theme rises from the depths in tribute to the lasting work of art, building to a sustained, rich peroration. Vita brevis - ars longa.
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CHADWICK: Thalia / Melpomene / Euterpe