“If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.” - Dolly Parton
It is difficult to be first in something. We tend to look back with high regard when someone is the first to do something great that has stood the test of time. Yet, to be first one must go against people, their habits, common thinking, and the dreaded tradition. It inevitably ends up being uphill the whole way, even after one has succeeded. John Knowles Paine has many firsts to his name: first music professor, first Harvard organist and choirmaster, created the first music appreciation classes, first guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and first American-born composer to become famous for his symphonic compositions. These all sound great! Yet, every step was a challenge, against the grain.
Having studied in Germany, Paine returned there to get his Mass performed and published. He organized his own performance, but no one would publish it. It was that “defeat” that led to his appointment at Harvard. Then, only after teaching his music appreciation class multiple years for no credit did Harvard finally make him the first music professor (both at Harvard and anywhere in the country).
Not all moments were so difficult. The premiere of Paine’s Symphony No. 1 in 1876, was apparently quite successful, as one review says “Every movement received applause that lasted several minutes... and culminated in a storm of bravos at the end of the work.”
Even now the work is still deserving of such high praise, and could be easily mistaken for a Germanic work composed around the same time. From the furious and energetic opening of the first movement, the luscious buildup of the third movement Adagio, and the triumphant drive through the finale this work begs to be played over and over again! JoAnn Falletta eloquently advocates that “It is music of energy and imagination, and deserves far more performances and hearings.” I wholeheartedly agree. Now that Paine no longer needs to drudge up the proverbial hill, I expect his compositions will do the
work for him.