John Knowles Paine: Symphony no. 1 in Cm

performed by the Ulster Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta, or below by the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta

(cover image by Freddie Marriage)

Before Mr. Paine, there had never been an American music writer worthy of serious consideration in the larger forms.

Rupert Hughes in Contemporary American Composers

John Knowles Paine was born 9 January, 1839 in Maine into a musical family. His grandfather was an instrument maker who built the first pipe organ in the state of Maine, and all of the males of the family, it seems, were music teachers. Paine’s first music teacher was one Hermann Kotzschmar, a “German-American musician, conductor, and composer” only a decade Paine’s senior, who’d moved to America at around 20 years of age or so.

Paine completed his first composition, a string quartet, at 16, and a few years later became organist at Portland’s Haydn Society. He later held recitals to raise money for a trip to Europe. Smart boy.

Paine studied for some time in Berlin, and also toured in Europe, giving recitals for a number of years, creating a reputation for himself that would reach American soil before he did. Upon his return to America in 1861, he became Harvard’s first University organist and choirmaster, and established free music appreciation and theory courses that would eventually become the school’s curriculum for new music students. It was also the country’s first music department, and Paine was thus America’s first music professor! We can see how all of this led to him becoming quite an influential figure in American music.

He was, though, clearly still tied to and influenced by European instruction and ideas, which isn’t a bad thing, but if we’re searching for the first true American symphonist, this might not be it. But it could be, depending on how you look at it.

Paine was the eldest member of a group known as The Boston Six (or as Wiki there refers to them, “The Second New England School;” the first being “the hymnodists of the 18th century”), made up of Paine, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, Edward MacDowell, Horatio Parker, and George Chadwick. Spoiler alert: we’ll be seeing all of these people except for MacDowell in the coming weeks.

As I discussed in the introduction to this series, its purpose is to do some digging to find some firsts, the genesis of American music and whence it came. Obviously, we begin with European ties, as concert music (or “classical music” or whatever you want to call it) originates from there. This is a good first step. I also cannot overemphasize how wonderful is Neil Butterworth’s The American Symphony. If this is something you’re interested in, that book is a must-read. I took pages of notes (library book)!

Paine’s first symphony was composed between 1872 and 1875, and premiered the following year, on January 26, 1876, so while he wasn’t the first composer to compose a symphony on American soil, it seems he may have been the first actual American to do so. He was in his early 30s. (A notable exclusion from our series is Louis Moreau Gottschalk, an American composer who did write at least one or two symphonies, but not on American soil. The first was influenced by his time ‘in the tropics.’)

Gunther Schuller, a composer and conductor who we will see again much later in this series, described Paine’s first symphony as “the best Beethoven symphony Beethoven didn’t write himself,” which is saying something considering works like Brahms’s first, and others. And in fact, I’d liken it more to Brahms than Beethoven. I don’t know who wouldn’t believe this wasn’t a German(ic) symphony by a European composer, but in some sense, it is. While Paine and some of these first few American composers we’ll discuss are American, their craft is still largely European, learned in Europe and brought home.

I don’t want to sit here and constantly refer to Paine’s work in terms of other composers, but the first few phrases of his first symphony remind me very much of Brahms’s first in the best ways possible. There’s a singular ring from the orchestra, underpinned by timpani, that gets this whole C minor symphony underway, and from that first heartbeat, there is a similar energy and sternness to the German composer’s work.

But again, much like Brahms, that severity is balanced, rounded out, by a second subject that shows a different but equally engaging side of the work at hand. This opening movement shows Paine adept at both the serious and tender, with beautiful turns of phrase between the two, or a tender moment between thunderous passages where the clarinet and flute converse momentarily. Paine’s writing is commanding, focused, but also vivid and engaging. It’s a superb and very promising first movement.

The second movement, marked allegro vivace, is our scherzo, and it comes from the same cloth as the first movement, seeming to use similar material, but in a very different way. There’s a connectedness about the content that I’m sure I could describe if I studied it more. It’s satisfying nonetheless and the scherzo is equally well written. If you’d ever been disappointed that Brahms only gave his listeners one symphonic scherzo, you would love this. The scherzo is only slightly more heavy-handed than Brahms’s symphonic non-scherzos, and it leads to a terribly charming trio led by clarinet, one of the first places in this symphony where the work stops for a moment and settles, so it feels like a bit of an arrival.

But the true gem of this symphony might be in the slow movement, an outstanding display of subtlety, delicacy, and restraint. It sings and shines, especially under Falletta’s baton. In this movement above all others, it sounds like we hear the composer not just speaking a language he learned in Europe, or showing off his talent, but actually communicating, sharing something personal. It’s a really wonderful movement, at times broad and expansive, others intimate, just very well crafted.

In contrast, the finale is ebullient, celebratory, in bright, sunny C major. It’s a sonata form movement, with a second subject in E major. The result is a symphony that feels much like the ‘ad astra per aspera‘ of a Beethoven or Brahms Cm symphony, but Paine is overall a bit lighter on the tragedy. The movement caps the whole work off in a positive manner that draws from the bucolic atmosphere of the second movement.

Paine shows in his first effort that he had absorbed and digested the great qualities of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, and at different points throughout the work, we can hear all of them in various ways. It could be that he found his voice more in his second symphony, or perhaps other works, but at the very least, he crafted a very respectable first symphony. While I won’t go so far as to say it deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Brahms or Beethoven, it’s certainly a symphony by an American composer to be proud of.

That’s obviously only the beginning of our series, so stay tuned for some of the earliest installments before we get to things that sound definitively American. Like I said in the introduction to this series, we’ve got that first phase of European-derived works ahead of the forging of a truly unique American sound, so please stay tuned for the next six weeks. Thank you.

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