Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Possibly in an effort to puff up his legacy, Arthur Foote is described as the first American composer with a purely American education. I have a hard time with this characterization. Not only is his music strongly compared to Brahms and Wagner, Foote even visited Bayreuth for one of the earliest performances, ran into Wagner and Liszt speaking at the entrance to the orchestra pit, and subsequently snuck in to watch the final act of Götterdämmerung from behind the orchestra. American education or not, Foote was present for an epic moment of European music history.
At any rate, Foote did have an American education and made his mark on American
music. It didn’t hurt that, in his time period, Boston’s music scene was booming. In fact, the competition was on to build the greatest and highest quality New England orchestra, and while the Boston Symphony Orchestra was—and still is to this day—the eventual winner, that competition sparked concerts, interest, and discussions galore, particularly on the subject of European vs. American music. Still at the outset of establishing a uniqueness of its own, American music had yet to “sound” like anything else but another version of the great Romantic masters of the time. Music from this era (late 19th, early 20th century) is regularly criticized for this, though I believe the critique is shortsighted. Practically everything about the New World was to be developed, built, patterned after the only examples they had: European models. Why would this be any different with art? Foote happened to be there at the beginning and was a great example of an American, through and through, that could successfully model the Romantics, while maintaining and even raising the standard. Therein lies the importance of Foote’s place in history.
As with so many of his pioneer colleagues, Foote’s orchestral output is small and of high quality. His most significant works are a Serenade for Strings, Francesca da Rimini Prologue for orchestra, and Four Character Pieces after the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The Four Character Pieces, while short, are wonderfully shaped, drawing the listener in immediately. While Foote did not venture into the realm of Symphonic form, the Suite in D Minor comes close in breadth and scope. Not very well known nor often performed, from the very beginning there is a heft and power likely influenced by the late Romantics. From the relentlessness of the opening movement, the meandering melodic lines of the espressivo, and the joviality of the closing presto and its never ending fugue, this suite may as well have been Foote’s offering to the Symphonic form.
Foote is generally labeled and criticized for sounding too German, too much like his European counterparts. I say, so what? He does it brilliantly and with his own style and lightness. We should encourage the comparison, as it may well entreat more performances of his less heard music.