On Dec. 7, the Longwood Symphony Orchestra performs John Knowles Paine’s Overture to Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” (Op. 28). Mostly remembered for presiding over the creation of Harvard’s music department — becoming, in the process, the first university music professor in the United States — Paine (1839-1906) was also, in his own day, a celebrated composer. His music’s passage into obscurity is testament to a longstanding tension: just what it means to be an American composer.
Initially, Paine made his name as an organist, first in his native Maine, then in Europe. Settling in Boston after studying in Berlin, Paine was hailed for his Bach performances (a novelty at the time). It took a return trip to Berlin, where his Mass in D was successfully premiered, to establish his compositional credentials. The European imprimatur promoted Paine to the forefront of American music. At the premiere of his Second Symphony, a cultivated epitome of late Romanticism, critic John Sullivan Dwight stood on his seat, opening and closing his umbrella in enthusiasm. His music for a famous Greek-language Harvard production of “Oedipus Tyrannus” gained international notice.
Paine had a mischievous streak. His organ variations on “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Op. 1) included some marvelously over-the-top indulgences; in 1863, he wrote “Radway’s Ready Relief,” a burlesque choral setting of a patent-medicine advertisement. But his attention gradually turned more to serious forms and subjects: patriotic songs and parodies gave way to Shakespeare, Sophocles, symphonies. Academic reputation and expectation reinforced each other; Paine made himself into the model of a respectable composer.
“I believe,” Paine proclaimed, “in the future, composers will be distinguished more by their individuality of style than by nationality, or what is called local color.” National character, however, was growing to be as important a criterion for American music as scrupulous cosmopolitan craft. Paine’s European manners, necessary at the outset of his career, were, by the end of it, becoming a liability. In time, Paine’s position as a quintessential New England composer would be usurped by Charles Ives, a beneficiary (by way of Yale) of the university-level musical training that Paine spearheaded, but one who gut-renovated his style to make room for the local color Paine discounted.
Paine’s concert music was relegated to the repertoire’s fringes, too European to exemplify America, too American to crack the then-forming European canon. But his best works remain some of the most beautifully wrought artifacts of the nation’s long identity crisis.
Conductor Ronald Feldman and the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, with bassoonist
Judith LeClair, perform music by Paine, Mozart, Stravinsky and Ravel, Dec. 7, 8 p.m., Jordan Hall. Tickets $15-$45. www.longwoodsymphony.org