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The Hand of a Very Fine Craftsman - George Whitefield Chadwick

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

“Musical America is in the grip of Europe. Europe dictates to us what music we shall hear, tells us the kind we should prefer, and, worst of all, insists upon dictating to our composers what kind they should write." — Henry Gilbert

Another of the Boston 6, George Whitefield Chadwick spent most of his life in Boston, and like his contemporaries kept a strong European tradition with him. This seems to have been quite a controversy at the time, not just for Chadwick. Certainly, American composers were active, and American orchestras performed their compositions. Yet, there was nothing to distinguish the American sound from that of the “Old World”. At the same time, from our present moment, hearing the music of Chadwick, it’s fantastic! Yes, you can hear all the influences you imagine. Chadwick especially has a playful and light side, a la Rossini. He can also go deeply sensual, creating rather long lyrical lines with rich, disappearing accompaniment. Climactic moments abound, but are rarely over the top in energy or tension. His compositions are interesting, delightful, and absolutely fit in with any other Romantic orchestral repertoire. At the time, I guess the feeling was that this was boring. Today, it’s refreshing!

Chadwick’s life spans an interesting series of world historical events and societal shifting inventions. Quoting Bill Faucett’s biography of Chadwick, as he puts it very articulately:

“Born in 1854, just a few years before the first volley of the Civil War, he lived to see the devastation of the Great War and the turmoil wrought by the onset of the Great Depression.” “Chadwick also watched as technology improved—and sometimes invaded—his life via electricity, the phonograph and the gramophone, the telephone, and the motion picture. He traveled widely—first by horse cart and train, then by steamship and automobile, and eventually by air—in the United States and abroad. Chadwick’s travels enabled his presence at many of the age’s most consequential musical events…”

Can you imagine living and being so highly productive before electricity, the car, and the telephone? Ok, I’m old enough to have used a rotary phone, but still…

Chadwick’s composition portfolio is large and eclectic, including piano and organ works, chamber music, orchestral pieces, concerti, and choral and stage pieces. This is all the more impressive as he was also the director of the New England Conservatory of Music for much of his life in Boston. Incidentally, this was a position he did not initially want, which is very similar to William Schuman having rejected the same position with Juilliard multiple times before accepting. They both ended up notably effective and memorable as administrators. I guess there is something special about one who is right for a job but does not ask for it.

The ONLY thing that slowed Chadwick down was his health. First, it was Rheumatism, which made him lose some teeth and degraded his eyesight. That led to gout, which gave him a lot of chronic pain. But what did him in was a heart condition. Because he consistently wrote in his diary throughout his life, we have a clear though sobering account of the days leading up to his death. On December 27, 1930 he writes “Paderewski dinner and concert,” “Had a heart attack and could not go.” Just like that! As if it was a minor inconvenience!

I highly recommend you engage with Chadwick’s music. It is immediately gripping, accessible, and often delightful. He was an academic, a master of his craft, and it shows in every work he wrote. Chadwick didn’t blaze trails or break down barriers. He was, instead, just one of the best at what he chose to focus on. What more could anyone ask of a human?

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