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George Whitefield CHADWICK (1854-1931)
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major Op.21 [35:37]
Symphonic Sketches (1895-1904) [30:10]: Jubilee [8:13]; Noël [8:13]; Hobgoblin [5:59]; A Vagrom Ballad [7:45]
National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Recorded at the Grand Concert Studio of the National Radio Company of Ukraine in Kiev 17th -21st December 2003
NAXOS 8.559213 [65:47]

 

 

 

There is a certain irony in the fact that the greatest American symphonist of the latter half of the 1800s and the early years of the twentieth century is virtually unknown in the United Kingdom. A brief look at the CD catalogues shows that three record companies have made brave attempts at presenting this repertoire – Chandos, the redoubtable New World Records and, of course, Naxos. There are shorter pieces scattered around a number of ‘American’ music samplers, but it is fair to say that Chadwick’s reputation is based on perhaps a dozen CDs. So my impression is that it is perhaps not only on the British side of ‘the pond’ that he is little appreciated.

Now what is the reason for this? Well two things must be said, and I suppose they are interrelated. Firstly American music is dominated by ‘the greats’ such as Copland, Barber and Bernstein and, of course, Gershwin. All of these men tried to introduce a sense of ‘the American’ into their music – be it ‘jazz’ or ‘hoe-down’. But the key was that they looked towards the ‘homeland’ for inspiration and not to Europe - at least ostensibly. And this is what came to be the accepted philosophical underpinning of much music composed at this time.

And secondly, in the same way that Vaughan Williams and Bax pushed the great symphonies of Parry and Stanford into obscurity, the works of Chadwick were pushed to one side by the ‘jazz’ age. As in England, it has little to do with quality - more to do with fashion or even fad.

But as British listeners know, Parry, Stanford and the other Victorian and Edwardian composers have been making a limited come-back in the last two decades. At least we have a good repertoire of recorded symphonies and concertos from this interesting era. It is partly inspired by a desire to hear the precursors to the ‘greater’ 20th century works but has actually revealed a corpus of works that has a life and vibrancy of its own.

In the same manner, as New World Records have often proved, there is a considerable interest in the musical heritage of American music. Whether it is Native American or the work of the ‘bluesman’ it contributes to the grand total.

So slowly but surely George Whitefield Chadwick’s music is being re-integrated into the grand repertoire of the Nation.

The last general comment is that in America, as in Europe, it is no longer a sin to have written music that could be seen as being slightly derivative. Chadwick’s models were Schumann, Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and even Mendelssohn. He had studied in Leipzig with Joseph Rheinberger – so his traditional credentials were impeccable.  Once upon a time this would have condemned him to everlasting obscurity: thankfully we have moved on from that foolish attitude. And as we shall see, there is more of ‘America’ in these works than may at first be imagined.

I want to consider the Symphonic Sketches first of all. They were actually composed over a ten year period (1895-1904). Yet this in no way spoils their consistency. The programme notes suggest that this work was perhaps Chadwick’s greatest. It is in fact a ‘symphony’ in all but name. Each movement is given a pictorial or descriptive title and is prefaced by lines of verse suggesting the mood of the music.

The first movement is called Jubilee. This is effectively a rondo – which contrasts fast and loud music with passages that are quite reflective and even introverted. The influence of ‘negro’ tunes has been detected by musicologists; we find the composer using the ‘habanera’ rhythm to underpin a tune that owes much to Stephen Foster. Yet none of these allusions spoil the general effect of a well constructed and unified first movement.

The second movement, Noël is truly beautiful. There is a stillness and a serenity that moves the listener to tears. I hear echoes of Dvořák; others perhaps have heard Ives. The music evokes the Nativity – but this is a New England scene – not a renaissance one. And this is as it should be - for Chadwick was celebrating the birth of his second son, Noël.

Hobgoblin is another good case of transference. This is my favourite moment on this CD - here we have a short musical sketch that depicts that most English fairy from the most English playwright – Shakespeare’s Puck. Now of course it is easy to say that Chadwick has leant heavily on Mendelssohn – but this would only be half the truth. Puck, the Bard and Felix have been transported into the secret places of New England and given a very local turn of step. This is Halloween music at its best – full of crisp rhythms and subtle orchestral effects. It should be an encore the world over.

The last movement of this work is a kind of Vaudeville parody. It tells the stock tale of a hobo or tramp that was once popular in the music halls. The actual story line seems to have been lost – but the general effect is of ‘messing about.’ However there is a more ‘serious’ element to this movement. The tramp tries to gain the audience’s sympathy, however it is just a show – the hobo runs off-stage with ‘a tip of the hat and a wink of the eye.’

The Second Symphony in B flat was composed over a three year period. In fact separate movements were performed as the work progressed. The Scherzo first saw light of day in 1884 and was apparently extremely successful. It was followed by an Introduction and Allegro which approximates to the first movement.

When I first heard this work I was put in mind of Dvořák’s New World Symphony – which in spite of its popularity is still one of my favourite works. And this was strange – because Chadwick wrote his symphony nearly a decade before Dvořák hit the American Coast. It has been well said that the two composers shared a common aesthetic which meant that a number of their themes ‘could be, but are not, folk melodies.’

The opening movement is predicated upon a horn-call based on the ‘black’ notes. This ‘motto’ appears at various times and in differing guises throughout the work. Unlike some commentators, I do not see Native American or African-American influences here so much as a Schumann-esque open-air feeling. This is quite a European movement and none the worse for it. It is no coincidence that this work is in the same key as Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony and Schubert’s Fifth.

The Scherzo, which is the second movement, is absolutely superb. There is very much a ‘light’ music feel to this piece that would become more prevalent in fifty years time. Once again it would be easy to say that Mendelssohn was the model - however there is plenty that is original here. There is an Irish feel to much of this music that has been well described as ‘winking at you’.

The slow movement nods to Tchaikovsky. However the passion, romance and sheer depth of the music are all Chadwick’s own. It is amazing how such lovely music can have lain forgotten for over a century.

The finale – an allegro non troppo - echoes the opening movement’s horn-calls and the remainder of the movement is a paean of praise. The programme notes liken it to the conclusion of Schumann’s Spring Symphony and certainly no one could deny the freshness of every note in this fine movement. Thematic ideas are recalled from previous movements as this symphony happily reaches it coda. It is one of those musical moments that make the listener glad to be alive.

The National Radio Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine and their conductor Theodore Kuchar are perfectly at home in ‘Uncle Sam’s’ sound-world. However, their website does not appear to be up to date so it is a little difficult to find out what their repertoire is and what other CDs they have made ... which is a pity as they seem to be a fine orchestra.

This is a great CD and introduces us to one of the ‘forgotten’ names of American musical culture. A few years ago Naxos issued a companion volume [8.559117] containing tone poems and overtures. Together they make a fine introduction to Chadwick’s music.

John France

 

 

 



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