George Whitefield Chadwick: Symphony no. 3 in F

performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi

(cover image by Igor Goryachev)

George Whitefield Chadwick was born on 13 November 1854 in Lowell, Massachusetts. I haven’t seen a lot around about his musical education, but he took organ lessons from his older brother, and Wikipedia makes the following statement about him:

He developed an independent, self-reliant character early in his life. Dropping out of high school in 1871, Chadwick assisted briefly in his father’s insurance business. The experience enabled him to travel to Boston and other cities, where he attended concerts and cultural events that might have initiated his lifelong interest in the arts.

He entered the New England Conservatory just the following year, in 1872, as a “special student,” which apparently meant he could study with the faculty without needing to satisfy pesky things like entrance exams or degree requirements. He studied piano, organ, and music theory with respected teachers like Eugene Thayer, who was a student of Paine.

Four years later, in 1876, he accepted a faculty position at Olivet College, where he apparently became interested in composing. The following year, he moved to Germany, ending up in Leipzig, where he studied with Reinecke, Jadassohn, and Josef Rheinberger. He was back in Boston by 1880 and became director of the New England Conservatory in 1897. His three symphonies are, as Wikipedia puts it, from his “formative period” from 1879 to 1894, mostly after his time in Germany. Symphonies aside, he composed operas, choral works, and chamber music as well.

This third symphony of his comes from the very last year of that (perhaps rather arbitrary) formative period, being completed in 1894. It won the composer first prize in a competition at the National Conservatory of Music, with a $300 cash prize. Dvorak was director of the conservatory at the time, a hugely important figure then, and he must have enjoyed Chadwick’s work, but the opposite cannot be said. Chadwick apparently didn’t agree with Dvorak’s view of the importance of local folk music influences, like Dvorak used in his ninth, and we certainly do not hear them in this work.

It, too, begins in a very Brahmsian manner. I hate to keep referring to this music in terms of this or that composer, rather than specifically in terms of the composer’s work itself, but I’m also incapable of discussing one piece (like Chadwick’s) in the larger context of his output. What this says to me, as we’ll see below, is that while the American composers at the time may not (yet) have been blazing new trails and creating their own voice, they certainly had a great mastery of the idiom of the time, that being a hearty, spirited Romantic style, specifically in the footsteps of Brahms, and maybe even Dvorak, as we shall see.

The opening is bright and sunny, but not void of weight. It’s a ‘fresh ocean breeze in your face’ kind of sound, optimistic lively. The second subject of this first movement is a bit more reserved, like going down into the cabin while the sunshine goes on on deck. It’s far from melancholy, but presents at least a slight contrast in mood, a softer sound, some pizzicato, things like that. Overall, it has the the sturdiness of a Brahms symphony, the way some of the gestures and musical ideas are treated, but it’s more like the softer second symphony than his heavier-handed works. The development even reaches a few points that seem to get pretty dedicated to a slow-movement type of atmosphere, and it seems like the focus is much more on the broader, softer portions of the music than the opening ebullience.

The second movement is equally charming, with a Tchaikovskian gift for melody, simple, but so beautiful. The central passage of this movement contains a really triumphant brass section before we cool back down to the almost serenade-like nature of the opening, full of charms and effective but not overbearing drama. It ends with a gorgeous, round chorale-like passage of really beautiful finesse.

The first and second movements make up the bulk of this symphony, each of them taking about ten minutes, leaving the remaining 14 to the third and fourth movements. The third is a triple meter scherzo of sorts, but not actually a scherzo. The program notes to this Chandos release describe it as “a saltarello opening and some of Chadwick’s best contrapuntal writing,” mentioning favorable comparisons to Mendelssohn. Again, it’s undeniably charming, well-crafted, with little gems in gestures and turns of phrase. This is a short movement, with simple, quick charms, and after its six minutes, I feel like there’s a lot more time that could have been spent with the beautiful material that was presented.

The finale is only slightly longer, but is the most robust of the four, beginning with a triumphant, breathtaking horn phrase, which calls the orchestra to life. It’s the most spirited thing we’ve heard since the opening, and I’m very ready for it. That’s answered by another glimmering passage from strings, echoed by woodwinds. I am loath to continue mentioning Brahms, but it’s in the finale that Chadwick finally does reach the kind of heady passionate and handsomeness that you’d expect this symphony to have. It certainly finishes with a bang.

I suppose it’s a great compliment to be compared to The Bearded Wonder and others. It’s clear that this work is a piece from the pen of a highly capable composer. It’s a very well-crafted work. I think I may say that more than I realize, and what I mean is that it’s proportioned, balanced, contains a convincing sound palette, with captivating melodies and content… The only thing I’ll say against it, which is just a matter of opinion rather than criticism, is that’s a bit light. This is not a symphony with any glimpse of tragedy or struggle. It is through and through quite optimistic, buoyant, hopeful, cheery, and as a cheerful symphony, it’s wonderful, but for me, as a listener, there’s not much that really grabs my attention until the finale. That being said, I’m sure it would be a pleasant if not even slightly rapturous experience in the concert hall.

Again, rather than any distinctly ‘American’ voice, the earliest American symphonic composers are showing a great mastery of the form, excellent skill in handling larger forms, and a command of the Romantic vocabulary that could easily stand alongside their European counterparts. It won’t be until next week that we start to see a happy helping of undeniable, unmistakable Americanness in the the music, so please do stay tuned for that. Thanks very much for reading.

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