Born and bred in the American South, American composer John Powell was the son of a Virginia schoolmaster and his wife, the latter being an amateur musician of some skill. Powell's facility for the piano developed quickly, and by age 19 he had graduated from the University of Virginia. In 1901, Powell went to Europe to study piano with Frederic Charles Hahr, a veteran of Franz Liszt's master classes. From 1904 - 1907 Powell continued his course of study with famed piano pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky. During these years in Europe, Powell undertook three massive piano sonatas, the Sonata teutonica, the Sonata psychologique, and the Sonata Noble, Op. 21. The Teutonica in its original form runs more than an hour. All three sonatas are conceived in a strongly Romantic, Lisztian milieu, forming the basis of Powell's compositional approach. Powell's High German-derived arch-Romanticism continued unchanged for the next six decades in spite of all the twentieth-century trends that emphasize the new. Powell made his debut as pianist in Berlin in 1908.
While abroad, Powell, a handsome southerner with faultless social graces, made contact with several influential figures in Europe, including novelist Joseph Conrad. Powell proposed setting the novel Heart of Darkness as an opera, an idea that left Conrad cold. However, Conrad did agree to the idea of representing the work as a fantasy for piano and orchestra. Premiered with the Russian Symphony Orchestra in New York, the resulting Rhapsodie nègre, Op. 27 (1918) soon became Powell's trademark piece. He toured the United States extensively in the 1920s and usually featured it in concert appearances. The work became hugely popular; it was booked 50 times in the year 1929 alone. The Sonata Virginianesque for violin and piano (1919) continued the trend toward African-American folk subjects -- a source of inspiration Powell would soon abandon owing to his growing interest in "racial integrity."
Anyone reading the program notes circulated at Powell's concerts of the Rhapsodie nègre in the 1920s would have noted a distinct racist attitude expressed by the note-writer. This was Powell himself, under his pseudonym of Richard Brockwell, typifying "negros" as "savages" and "the child among the peoples." From this point forward Powell resolved to use only Anglo-American folk materials in his work. Some results were his Overture: In Old Virginia, Natchez on the Hill, and the suites In the South, At the Fair, A Set of Three, and others. Powell wrote concerti for both piano and violin, and in 1945 a symphony based on Appalachian folk ballads. Powell worked extensively on radio as a lecturer and taught at the University of Virginia. In 1931, Powell co-founded the White Top Mountain Folk Festival with John Blakemore and Annabel Buchanan. While the festival attracted expert folk performers from a wide range of disciplines, the material they were permitted to play was rather restricted, and the increasingly commercial nature of the event led to its demise by 1941. According to scholar David E. Whisnant, the only African Americans permitted at the festival in its ten-year history were Eleanor Roosevelt's valet's aged father and her two cooks. Powell adopted recording as a hobby later in life, and left an extensive audio legacy of his playing, lectures, and original interpretations, now housed at the University of Virginia. The Governor of Virginia declared November 5, 1951, as "John Powell Day"; on that occasion his final revision of his Symphony in A was given its premiere.
The Rhapsodie nègre shows an assurance of style and confidence that is uncommon in American concert music of the period. But for many, John Powell will remain on the dark side of the American classical music pantheon.