John Knowles Paine


Until the appearance of composer Johns Knowles Paine during the latter half of the nineteenth century, American musical culture was a pale reflection of its European counterpart. Although it would be decades before Paine's legacy would bear real fruit -- during the explosion of U.S. compositional activity during the first two or three decades of the twentieth century -- his importance as the first professor of music at an American institution of higher learning (Harvard University), and the subsequent dissemination of his ideas by three generations of students, have earned him a special place in the history of American music.

Paine was born in Maine during February 1839. His childhood training, received through a German-born musician named Herman Kotschmar, was thorough; by the time Paine departed for Europe in 1858 he was a skilled pianist, organist and composer. Studies at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (mainly with organist Karl-August Haupt) made a lasting impression on the composer, whose work would bear the mark of healthy German Romanticism until the end of his days. Paine returned to the United States in 1861, made a new home in Boston, and by 1863 had won, largely on the merit of his many appearances as an organist and his countless public lectures on musical form and history, a position on the faculty of Harvard University.

Paine's accomplishments as an administrator and teacher are important indeed. In addition to his work at Harvard -- where he almost single-handedly organized a department of music which would prove to be the model of every later American University -- Paine also played an important role during the formation of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His many notable students include composer Arthur Foote and musicologist/critic Olin Downes.

Paine's virtues as a composer are less unimpeachable, particularly in the later years when poor health robbed him of some of his creative faculty. At his best, as in the Mass in D from 1866-1867, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, in the First Symphony of 1875, Paine's language is clear and natural, owing much to the German classics he studied with Kotschmar and at the Hochschule in Berlin. Paine, however, did not move with great ease or fluidity into the more chromatic style of composition that emerged during the later years of the century, and when he began to stretch his tonal and expressive language -- in an effort to remain more "current" -- his music suffered noticeably (as in the programmatic Second Symphony of 1880). Within a few years of Paine's death his music had all but disappeared from the concert hall, though the general resurgence of interest in early American composers during the later years of the twentieth century provided Paine with a welcome (albeit temporary) respite from his place in musical limbo.