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Music Memories: The "Boston Six"

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Collage of American composers known as the Boston Six
The Boston Six: Top L-R Horatio William Parker, Amy Marcy Beach, George W Chadwick; Bottom L-R Arthur Foote, John Knowles Paine, and Edward Macdowell

On November 13, 1854, George Whitefield Chadwick was born. Chadwick was one of a group of composers who came to be known as the “Second New England School.” Their principal members were the “Boston Six,” and they were among the first American composers to make significant contributions to classical music. The existence of such group names might suggest that they were a tightly affiliated group, but they weren’t. Most of them knew one another, and they respected each other’s music, but they were only identified as a “school” of composers by later generations of music scholars.

The reputations of the Boston Six have all faded since their lifetimes, some more than others, but they have all endured well enough that our streaming collections offer at least some music by each of them. Today, we look briefly at the lives and music of these composers.

John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) was the grandson of an organ builder, and his father and uncles were all music teachers. He was initially known as an organist, who gave well-received concerts in America and in Europe; much of his music is written for the organ, including his Variations on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Paine was appointed Harvard’s first organist and founded the university’s music department—the first in the United States—where he taught for more than 40 years. His St. Peter is believed to be the first oratorio written by an American composer, his two symphonies, #1, #2, and his Mass in D were also highly regarded.

St. Peter: An Oratorio (Live)

Arthur Foote (1853-1937) was also an organist, and one of the founders of the American Guild of Organists. He was the first important American composer to receive his musical training entirely in the United States; most composers of this era traveled to Europe for musical education. Foote was best known for his chamber music; Freegal offers recordings of his piano trio and a selection of music for violin and piano. Among his relatively few orchestral works is Francesca Da Rimini.

George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931) is best remembered today as an educator. He was the director of the New England Conservatory of Music for many years; under his leadership, it was one of the first such schools to accept African-American students, including William Grant Still and Florence Price. His comic operetta Tabasco was so popular that it toured the United States for a year, and its “Tabasco March” was popular on music boxes. The operetta was written without the permission of Tabasco’s trademark holder, and the tour was allowed to continue only after the producer agreed to hand out samples of the hot sauce to audiences. Chadwick was also a noted composer of art songs, several of which are collected here.

Edward MacDowell (1861-1908) wrote what is today the most frequently heard piece by any of the group,“To a Wild Rose,” which is part of the piano suite Woodland Sketches. He was a talented pianist, and is best known for his piano music, including several sonatas and two piano concertos; the second can be heard here. In 1907, MacDowell and his wife founded a residential retreat for artists in New Hampshire. The MacDowell still exists as a nonprofit organization, and more than 8,000 authors, composers, playwrights, architects, and other artists have received grants to spend time working on their projects at the retreat.

Macdowell: Piano Music

Horatio Parker (1863-1919) is probably the least well-known of the Boston Six. Like Paine and Foote, he was an organist, and his organ concerto is one of his most enduring works. He is better remembered today for being one of Charles Ives’ music professors at Yale.

Amy Beach (1867-1944) was a talented pianist who began performing recitals and orchestral concerts at 16. When she married at the age of 18, her husband insisted that she limit her public performances to no more than two each year and that she focus her musical endeavors primarily on composition. He would not allow her to study composition with a tutor, and so Beach began studying on her own, reading every book of music theory and composition that she could. In 1896, her Gaelic Symphony became the first symphony to be composed and published by an American woman. Pianist Kristen Johnson offers four collections of Beach’s piano music, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs her piano quintet.

Love, The Fair Day

The album Love, the Fair Day is a program of songs and duets by several members of the Second New England School, including Foote, Chadwick, Beach, and MacDowell; the piano collection American Nocturnes includes short pieces by Beach, Foote, and Chadwick.