Arthur Farwell

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Arthur Farwell


• 1872 1952


Arthur Farwell is regarded today much as he was during his lifetime: on the periphery of American music. During his lifetime, this was perhaps understandable, as his often revolutionary and avant-garde ideas ensured his relative obscurity. Since his death, however, as American music has long since become a thriving field, the marginalization of such an important figure is one of the glaring omissions in American artistic history. Farwell was an astonishingly well-rounded musician: an innovative composer, a prolific writer, a tireless educator, and progressively minded music publisher whose often-unacknowledged influence is still felt today.

Born and raised in St. Paul, MN, Farwell was initially disinclined to the study of music; however, during his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a professor named Rudolph Gott inspired a passion for music that would last Farwell's life. After finishing his degree in electrical engineering there in 1893, Farwell began composition lessons with George Chadwick. The staid New Englander so dissatisfied the young pupil that he sought out Edward MacDowell, the most famous American composer at the time. Lessons with and encouragement from MacDowell led to Farwell's further studies in Europe, where he studied with Wagnerian Englebert Humperdinck and the German nationalist Hans Pfitzner. Pfitzner's librettist, James Grun, may have made a more important contribution to the young composer's education by emphasizing the necessity of folk sources in forming a national art form.

Farwell was experimenting with harmonizations of American Indian tunes when he realized that such material would satisfy Grun's stipulations as well as the call of Antonín Dvorák for Americans to make use of homegrown sources. The "Indianist" pieces that resulted became the material with which Farwell toured the country from 1903 to 1907, giving lecture-recitals. The frustration he felt at dealing with unadventurous music publishers of the day led him to found the Wa-Wan Press, based in Boston, in 1901; his concert tours helped him to find like-minded musicians. The publishing venture produced biannual issues of music by avant-garde American composers of the day, along with notes and essays, many written by Farwell. The publications often argued against the assumed superiority of European music and for the integration of native musical culture into American life; Farwell had always felt that such music was the property of all Americans, rejecting "highbrow" associations.

His talent for organizing and writing pushed him to the forefront of the American musical scene. He founded performance groups dedicated to the promotion of new and American music; he often sought to make these community-oriented, rather than solely professional organizations. In 1909, after moving to New York, he joined the staff at Musical America, a national publication. The demands of this job were such that he sold the Press in 1912 to G. Schirmer. Other manifestations of his democratic musical spirit were the pageants and community drama for which he composed music.

Although a two-year stint at Cornell had soured Farwell on academic life, 20 years later he accepted a position at the University of California in 1918, using the opportunity more to organize and develop the community musical scene than to teach. The ten years spent in California were, however, as frequently marked by failure as success. In 1927 Farwell took a post heading the theory-composition department at what is now Michigan State University.

After retirement in 1939, Farwell returned to New York, where he died in 1952. Both his writings and works, which include more than 30 songs on poems of Emily Dickinson, and the opera Cartoon, testify to a talented composer, writer, and educator who longed for an American music that would transcend a bankrupt commercialism.