The Authoritative Work On American Music by Carl Van Vechten

Story type: Essay

H. L. Mencken pointed out to me recently, in his most earnest and persuasive manner, that it was my duty to write a book about the American composers, exposing their futile pretensions and describing their flaccid opera, stave by stave. It was in vain that I urged that this would be but a sleeveless errand, arguing that I could not fight men of straw, that these our composers had no real standing in the concert halls, and that pushing them over would be an easy exercise for a child of ten. On the contrary, he retorted, they belonged to the academies; certain people believed that they were important; it was necessary to dislodge this belief. I suggested, with a not too heavily assumed humility, that I had already done something of the sort in an essay entitled “The Great American Composer.” “A good beginning,” asserted Col. Mencken, “but not long enough. I won’t be satisfied with anything less than a book.” “But if I wrote a book about Professors Parker, Chadwick, Hadley, and the others I could find nothing different to say about them; they are all alike. Neither their lives nor their music offer opportunities for variations.” “An excellent idea!” cried Major Mencken, enthusiastically, “Write one chapter and then repeat it verbatim throughout the book, changing only the name of the principal character. Then clap on a preface, explaining your reason for this procedure.” My last protest was the feeblest of all: “I can’t spend a year or a month or a week poring over the scores of these fellows; I can’t go to concerts to hear their music. I might as well go to work in a coal mine.” “I’ll do it for you!” triumphantly checkmated General Mencken. “I’ll read the scores and you shall write the book!” And so he left me, as on a similar occasion the fiend, having exhibited his prospectus, vanished from the eyes of our Lord. And I returned to my home sorely troubled, finding that the words of the man were running about in my head like so many little Japanese waltzing mice.

And, after much cogitation, I went to such and such a book case and took down a certain volume written by Louis Charles Elson (a very large red tome) and another by Rupert Hughes, to see if their words of praise for our weak musical brothers would stir me to action. I found that they did not. My heart action remained normal; no film covered my eyes; foam did not issue from my mouth. Indeed I read, quite calmly, in Mr. Hughes’s “American Composers” that A. J. Goodrich is “recognized among scholars abroad as one of the leading spirits of our time”; that “(Henry Holden) Huss has ransacked the piano and pillaged almost every imaginable fabric of high colour…. The result is gorgeous and purple”; that “The thing we are all waiting for is that American grand opera, The Woman of Marblehead (by Louis Adolphe Coerne). It is predicted that it will not receive the marble heart”; that “I know of no modern composer who has come nearer to relighting the fires that burn in the old gavottes and fugues and preludes (than Arthur Foote). His two gavottes are to me away the best since Bach”; that “the song ( Israfel by Edgar Stillman-Kelley) is in my fervent belief, a masterwork of absolute genius, one of the very greatest lyrics in the world’s music”; and in “The History of American Music” by Louis C. Elson that “Music has made even more rapid strides than literature among us,” and that “he (George W. Chadwick) has reconciled the symmetrical (sonata) form with modern passion.” But it was in the fourth volume of “The Art of Music,” published by the National Society of Music, that I found the supreme examples of this kind of writing. The volume was edited by Arthur Farwell and W. Dermot Darby. Therein I read with a sort of awed astonishment that one of the songs of Frederick Ayres “reveals a poignancy of imagination and a perception and apprehension of beauty seldom attained by any composer.” I learned that T. Carl Whitmer has a “spiritual kinship” with Arthur Shepherd, Hans Pfitzner, and Vincent d’Indy. His music is “psychologically subtle and spiritually rarefied: in colour it corresponds to the violet end of the spectrum.” I turned the pages until I came to the name of Miss Gena Branscombe: “Inexhaustible buoyancy, a superlative emotional wealth, and wholly singular gift of musical intuition are the qualities which have shaped the composer’s musical personality (without much effort of the imagination we might say that they are the qualities that shaped Beethoven’s musical personality)…. Her impatient melodies leap and dash with youthful life, while her accompaniments abound in harmonic hairbreadth escapes.” Before he became acquainted with the later French idiom Harvey W. Loomis “spontaneously breathed forth the quality of spirit which we now recognize in a Debussy or a Ravel.”

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Curiously enough, however, these statements did not annoy me. I found no desire arising in me to deny them and doubtless, though mayhap with a guilty conscience, I should have ditched the undertaking, consigned it to that heap of undone duties, where already lie notes on a comparison of Andalusian mules with the mules of Liane de Pougy, a few scribbled memoranda for a treatise on the love habits of the mole, and a half-finished biography of the talented gentleman who signed his works, “Nick Carter,” if my by this time quite roving eye had not alighted, entirely fortuitously, on one of the forgotten glories of my library, a slender volume entitled “Popular American Composers.”

I recalled how I had bought this book. Happening into a modest second-hand bookshop on lower Third Avenue, maintained chiefly for the laudable purpose of redistributing paper novels of the Seaside and kindred libraries, of which, alas, we hear very little nowadays, I asked the proprietor if by chance he possessed any literature relating to the art of music. By way of answer, he retired to the very back of his little room, searched for a space in a litter on the floor, and then returned with a pile of nine volumes or so in his arms. The titles, such as “Great Violinists,” “Harmony in Thirteen Lessons,” and “How to Sing,” did not intrigue me, but in idly turning the pages of this “Popular American Composers” I came across a half-tone reproduction of a photograph of Paul Dresser, the only less celebrated brother of Theodore Dreiser, with a short biography of the composer of On the Banks of the Wabash. As Sir George Grove in his excellent dictionary neglected to mention this portentous name in American Art and Letters (although he devoted sixty-seven pages, printed in double columns, to Mendelssohn) I saw the advantage of adding the little book to my collection. The bookseller, when questioned, offered to relinquish the volume for a total of fifteen cents, and I carried it away with me. Once I had become more thoroughly acquainted with its pages I realized that I would willingly have paid fifteen dollars for it.

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This book, indeed, cannot fail to delight General Mencken. There is no reference in its pages to Edgar Stillman-Kelley, Miss Gena Branscombe, Louis Adolphe Coerne, Henry Holden Huss, T. Carl Whitmer, Arthur Farwell, Arthur Foote, or A. J. Goodrich. In fact, if we overlook brief notices of John Philip Sousa, Harry von Tilzer, Paul Dresser, Charles K. Harris, and Hattie Starr (whom you will immediately recall as the composer of Little Alabama Coon ), the author, Frank L. Boyden, has not hesitated to go to the roots of his subject, pushing aside the college professors and their dictums, and has turned his attention to figures in the art life of America, from whom, Mencken himself, I feel sure, would not take a single paragraph of praise, so richly is it deserved. I am unfamiliar with the causes contributing to this book’s comparative obscurity; perhaps, indeed, they are similar to those responsible for the early failure of “Sister Carrie.” May not we even suspect that the odium cast by the Doubledays on the author of that romance might have been actively transferred in some degree to a work which contained a biographical notice and a picture of his brother? At any rate, “Popular American Composers,” published in 1902, fell into undeserved oblivion and so I make no apology for inviting my readers to peruse its pages with me.

Opening the book, then, at random, I discover on page 96 a biography of Lottie A. Kellow (her photograph graces the reverse of this page). In a few well-chosen words (almost indeed in “gipsy phrases”) Mr. Boyden gives us the salient details of her career. Mrs. Kellow is a resident of Cresco, Iowa, a church singer of note, and the possessor of a contralto voice of great volume. As a composer she has to her credit “marches, cakewalks, schottisches, and other styles of instrumental music.” We are given a picture of Mrs. Kellow at work: “Mrs. Kellow’s best efforts are made in the evening, and in darkness, save the light of the moonbeams on the keys of her piano.” We are also told that “she is happy in her inspirations and a sincere lover of music. All of her compositions show a decided talent and possess musical elements which are only to be found in the works of an artist. Mrs. Kellow’s musical friends are confident of her success as a composer and predict for her a brilliant future.”

Let us turn to the somewhat more extensive biography of W. T. Mullin on Page 4 (his photograph faces this page). Almost in the first line the author rewards our attention: “To him may be applied the simplest and grandest eulogy Shakespeare ever pronounced: ‘He was a man.’” We are also informed that he was born of a cultured family, that his inherited nobility of character has been carefully fostered by a thorough education, and told that one finds in him the unusual combination of genius wedded to sound common sense and practical business capacity. His family moved to Colorado, Texas, while he was still a lad and here his musical talent began to display itself. “The inventive faculties of the small boy, and the innate harmony of the musician, combined to improvise a crude instrument which emitted the notes of the scale. Successful at drawing forth a concord of sweet sounds, he continued to experiment upon everything which would emit musical vibrations. (Even the pigs, I take it, did not escape.) He consequently discovered the laws of vibrating chords before he had mastered the intricacies of the multiplication table. Yet strange as it may seem, his musical education was neglected. A four months’ course in piano instruction was interrupted and then resumed for two months more. Upon this meagre foundation rested his subsequent phenomenal progress.” I pause to point out to the astonished and breathless reader that even Mozart and Schubert, infant prodigies that they were, received more training than this.

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I continue to quote: “At the age of thirteen he joined The Colorado (Texas) Cornet Band as a charter member. The youngest member of the band, he soon outstripped his comrades by virtue of his superior natural ability. His position was that of second tenor. Wearying of the monotony of playing, he determined to venture on solo work. The boy felt the impetus of restless power and the following incident illustrates his remarkable originality. Taking the piano score of a favourite melody he transposed it within the compass of the second tenor. This feat evoked admiring applause because of his extreme youth and untrained abilities. The band-master remarked that elderly and experienced heads could hardly have accomplished this.

“From boyhood to manhood he has remained with the Colorado (Texas) band as one of its most efficient members, composing in his leisure moments, marches, ragtimes, waltzes, song and dance schottisches, etc. Of his many meritorious compositions only one has so far been given to the public:– The West Texas Fair March, composed for and dedicated to the management of the West Texas Fair and Round-up. This institution holds its annual meetings at Abilene, Texas. There the march was played for the first time at their October, 1899, meet with great success, and again at their September, 1900, meet by the Stockman band of Colorado, Texas, which has furnished music for the West Texas Fair during their 1899 and 1900 meetings. Mr. Mullin’s position in the Stockman band is that of euphonium soloist. He is a proficient performer upon all band instruments from cornet to tuba, including slide trombone, his favourites being the baritone and the trombone.

“He plays many stringed instruments, as well as the piano and organ. He is the proud possessor of a genuine Stradivarius violin–a family heirloom–which he naturally prizes beyond the intrinsic value. The feat of playing on several instruments at once presents no difficulty to him.

“This briefly sketches Mr. Mullin’s life, character and ability as a musician. His accompanying photograph reveals his superb physique. Personally he possesses charming, agreeable manners and Chesterfieldan courteousness, which vastly contributes to his popularity. Sincere devotion to his art has been rewarded by that elevating nobility of soul, which alone can penetrate the blue expanse of space and revel in the music of the spheres.”

What more is there to say? I can only assure the reader that Mullin stands unique among all musicians, creative and interpretative, in being able to play the organ, many stringed instruments, and all the instruments in a brass band (several of them simultaneously; it would be interesting to know which and how) after studying the piano for six months. I sincerely hope that the mistake he made in withholding all his compositions, save one, from the public, has been rectified.

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Helen Kelsey Fox, like so many of our talented men and women, has a European strain in her blood. She is a lineal descendant on her mother’s side of a French nobleman and a German princess. Nevertheless she continues to reside in Vermilion, Ohio. She is of a “decided poetic nature and lives in an atmosphere of her own. She dwells in a world of thought peopled by the creations of an active and lyric mentality.” She is so imbued with the poetic spark that, as she expresses it, she “speaks in rhyme half the time.”

John Z. Macdonald, strictly speaking, is not an American composer. He was born in Scotland and came to America in 1881 at the age of 21, but as he is one of the very few composers since Nero to enter public political life he well deserves a place in this collection. In 1890 he was elected city clerk of Brazil, Indiana, a position which he held for seven years. In 1898 he was elected treasurer of Clay County, Indiana. This county is democratic “by between five and six hundred” but Mr. Macdonald was elected on the republican ticket by a majority of 133. He was the only republican elected. Among the best known of Mr. Macdonald’s compositions is his famous “expansion” song, in which he predicted the fate of Aguinaldo. He has autograph letters, praising this song, from the late President McKinley, Col. Roosevelt, General Harrison, Admiral Schley, John Philip Sousa and other “eminent gentlemen.”

Edward Dyer, born in Washington, was the son of a marble cutter who “helped to erect the U. S. Treasury, Patent Office, and Capitol…. In the majority of his compositions there is a tinge of sadness which appeals to his auditors…. Mr. Dyer never descends to coarseness or vulgarity in his productions; he writes pure, clean words, something that can be sung in the home, school and on the stage to refined respectable people.”

We learn much of the study years of Mrs. Lucy L. Taggart: “From earliest childhood she received valuable musical instruction from her father (Mr. Longsdon) who, coming from England in 1835, purchased the first piano that came to Chicago, an elegant hand-carved instrument that is still treasured in the old home.” Later “she studied under Prof. C. E. Brown, of Owego, N. Y., Prof. Heimburger, of San Francisco and Herr Chas. Goffrie. Mrs. Taggart was also for five years a pupil of Senor Arevalo, the famous guitar soloist of Los Angeles…. Mrs. Taggart has in preparation (1902) Methought He Touched the Strings, an idyl for piano in memory of the late Senor M. S. Arevalo.”

David Weidley, born in Philadelphia, is the composer of the following songs, Old Spooney Spooppalay, Jennie Ree, Autumn Leaves, Hannah Glue, and Uncle Reuben and Aunt Lucinda. “He has done much to create and elevate a taste for music in the community where he resides and where he is known as ‘Dave.’ Even the little children call him ‘Dave’ as freely and innocently as those who have known him for years, and there can be no greater compliment for any man than that he is known and loved by the children. Mr. Weidley is by profession a sheet metal worker. He is a P. G. of the I. O. O. F., and a P. C. in the Knights of Pythias. He is not identified with any church, but loves and serves his fellow-men.”

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In the biography of Delmer G. Palmer we are assured that “Versatility is a trait with which musical composers are not excessively burdened. There are few performers who can include The Moonlight Sonata and Schubert’s Serenade with selections from The Merry-go-round, and do justice to the expression of each, much less would such adaptability be looked for among composers. As most rules have exceptions, in this there is one who stands in a class occupied by no one else, Mr. Delmer G. Palmer, the ‘Green Mountain Composer,’ who at present resides in Kansas City.

“As recently as 1899 Mr. Palmer wrote a song in the popular ‘ragtime,’ My Sweetheart is a Midnight Coon and almost in the same breath also wrote the heavy sacred solo, Christ in Gethsemane. The first is of the usual light order characteristic of this class of music. The latter is as far removed to the contrary as is comedy from tragedy. The ‘coon’ song entered the bubbling effervescing cauldron of what is termed ‘ragtime’ music among the multitudinous others, and soon was seen peeping through at the surface among the lightest and most catchy…. The sacred solo found its level among the heavier in its class, and if the term may be here applied, it was also a hit.”

S. Duncan Baker, born August 25, 1855, still lives (1902) in the old family residence at Natchez, Miss. “In this house is located the den where he has spent many hours with his collection of banjos and pictures and in writing for and playing on the instrument which he adopted as a favourite during its dark days (about 1871).” We are told that he composed an “artistic banjo solo,” entitled, Memories of Farland. “Had this production or its companion piece, Thoughts of the Cadenza, been written by an old master for some other instrument and later have been adapted by a modern composer to the banjo, either or both of them would have been pronounced classic, barring some slight defects in form.”

I cannot stop to quote from the delightful accounts offered us of the lives and works of Albert Matson, George D. Tufts, D. O. Loy, Lavinia Pascoe Oblad, and forty or fifty other American singers, but it seems to me that I have done enough, Mencken, to prove to you that the great book on American music has been written. Without one single mention of the names of Horatio Parker, George W. Chadwick, Frederick Converse, or Henry Hadley, by a transference of the emphasis to the place where it belongs, the author of this undying book has answered your prayer.

December 11, 1917.

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