Chadwick was one of the most important American composers during the late 19th century and up thru the 1920s. Considered one of the “Boston Classicists,” he was actually more of a Romantic – schooled like many of his colleagues in the German programmatic school, and writing lush and colorfully-orchestrated symphonic works. He wrote two textbooks on harmony and was head of the New England Conservatory of Music.
Though Chadwick didn’t make use of actual American folksongs in his works, he was a pioneer in creating a special American style of concert music which eventually led the way to the modern Americana of Copland, Thomson and others. His neo-Romanticism was infused with very American feelings of enthusiasm and optimism, and in Symphonic Sketches – really one of his symphonies – he dealt with aspects of American life. Each of its four movements is prefaced with poetry about the scene depicted.
First is Jubilee – a wild and colorful rondo with some tunes that have the flavor of black spirituals and songs. Noel is less of a Christmas piece and more of a slow movement tender portrait of Chadwick’s second son Noel. Hobgoblin is introduced by a couplet from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and is the composer’s version of Mendelssohn’s famous scherzo. The adventurous A Vagrom Ballad portrays a vaudeville skit about a hobo. It has some lugubrious music, a soft-shoe dance melody, and impressionistic effects. I compared the well-known Mercury recording by Howard Hanson and found it more high-powered with in-your-face acoustic vs. the laid-back, more distant acoustic of the Kuchar discing. However, there was a shade more clarity with the Naxos and the orchestra’s various sections were better located spatially. If Universal hasn’t given up on the Mercury 3-channel SACD reissues, I really hope they will include the Chadwick (paired with MacDowell & Peter) in the next series release.
Chadwick’s Second Symphony dates from 1886. Its opening main theme has a strong feeling of native folk music due to its use of the pentatonic scale and the whole 11-minute movement has an optimistic, extroverted mood about it. Both first two movements show a fleet and light approach to the orchestration. The third, the slow movement, reflects Tchaikovsky with a sombre melody. The finale is again light, fresh and up in feeling. It has been compared to the finale of Schumann’s Spring Symphony.
It’s sobering to think that important American music such as these two works – featured in Naxos’ “American Classics” series – must be presented on disc by a Ukrainian orchestra (good as they do sound), but recorded-music lovers should be familiar with that. It’s been a fact of life since the 1950s. Otherwise they wouldn’t get recorded at all!
– John Sunier