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America’s Forbidden Composer


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“Arthur Farwell is probably the most neglected composer in our history. . . . At the turn of the century no one wrote music with greater seriousness of purpose or fought harder for American music. . . . He was an intellectual and spiritual giant.”

This assessment, by the late composer/critic A. Walter Kramer in 1973, rings ever louder today; Farwell has been deemed untouchable.  Hounded by the watchdogs of “cultural appropriation,” he has fallen prey to dictates of political rectitude, a victim of our escalating culture wars.  

He was (among many other things) the leader of the “Indianists” movement in American music – a huge and yet forgotten swath of cultural history, amassing many hundreds of operas, symphonies, chamber works, and songs until petering out in the 1930s. I first discovered Arthur Farwell via a New World Records “Indianists” LP about twenty years ago. The Farwell pieces on that recording weren’t very good, but they were original. I was curious to know more about a composer who, inspired by Dvorak, thought Americans would one day become sufficiently enlightened to embrace Native America as an essential component of our national identity. I soon discovered, in score, Farwell compositions far more challenging both for performer and listener – forgotten music, once esteemed, and yet never recorded. Ever since, I’ve seized every opportunity to present it in concert.

Not long after my Farwell discovery, I encountered a prominent Native-American ethnomusicologist who told me that she did not listen to Arthur Farwell’s music as a matter of principle. This is the kind of challenge Farwell poses.

PostClassical Ensemble – the “experimental” DC chamber orchestra I co-founded in 2003 with the remarkable Spanish conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez – is dedicated to curating the musical past. As readers of this blog know, we champion composers whose time will come. Silvestre Revueltas, Bernard Herrmann, Lou Harrison are the top of our list. Whether Farwell’s time will come is another question – it will, alas, depend on political, not musical winds of change.

The 2014 PCE Naxos CD “Dvorak and America” was a start. It includes three top-drawer Farwell cameos in terrific performances: the piano pieces Pawnee Horses and Navajo War Dance No. 2 played by Benjamin Pasternack, and a 16-part a cappella version of Pawnee Horses sung (in Navajo) by the University of Texas Chamber Singers under James Morrow – one of half a dozen distinguished choral conductors who I’ve observed discovering Farwell with incredulity. You can hear the UT performance by clicking here and scrolling down.

A week ago, PCE produced a week-long festival, “Native American Inspirations,” surveying 125 years of music inspired by Native America. That is – we linked Dvorak, Farwell, and the Indianists to contemporary composers, Native and non-Native, who mine Native American songs and ceremony. In a few weeks’ time, that festival will generate a four-hour “PostClassical” podcast. After that will come a PCE-produced Farwell release, on Naxos, with world premiere recordings.

The DC festival, headquartered at the Washington National Cathedral, provoked divergent reviews from Anne Midgette in the Washington Post and Sudip Bose in The American Scholar. Midgette gave short shrift to Farwell; she wanted to hear more music composed by Native Americans. Her review was buttressed by a flood of supportive tweets condemning Farwell as an appropriator. Bose mounted a considered rebuttal (see below).

The festival itself included a Saturday night public conversation, at the Center for Contemporary Political Art, that attempted to unpack the controversy clouding Farwell and his movement. I will return to that event below. But first: the music.


Charles Martin Loeffler called Arthur Farwell’s Pawnee Horses for solo piano (1905) “the best composition yet written by an American.” As Loeffler was for a time the most highly regarded American composer, a schooled aristocratic musical personality, a man who also grasped the importance of George Gershwin when others dismissed Gershwin as a gifted dilettante, his opinion means something. The piece itself, setting an Omaha song, is not even two minutes long. A downward cascading chant is framed by galloping figurations. The pianistic lay-out, with multiple hand-crossings, is idiomatic and ingenious. Most memorably, Farwell deploys harmony and texture to create a fragrant aura of mystery; at the close, the gallop dissipates in the treble. Considered as a musical composition, without reference to source or inspiration, Pawnee Horses is indisputably top-notch. In 1937, Farwell created a second version for a cappella chorus; the closing ascent touches a pianissimo high C. Musically considered, Pawnee Horses is a choral tour de force. Again: you can access this piece here.

Another early Farwell piano solo – Navajo War Dance No. 2 – was championed by John Kirkpatrick. He is the pianist who premiered Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata. This 1904 Farwell miniature is notably astringent, rhythmically and harmonically complex. It is also hard to play. It more resembles Bartok than any other American composition I know. But Farwell could not possibly have known pertinent Bartok keyboard music in 1904.

In the hidden world of Arthur Farwell, the two piano pieces I have just mentioned are relatively known. But his biggest Indianist composition, the Hako String Quartet of 1923, is certainly not. I had occasion to present it with student performers at the New England Conservatory in 1999. The late David MacAllester, an eminent authority on Native American music, was at hand to react. McAllister was greatly impressed by the Hako Quartet.

One of the challenges of presenting Farwell in concert is enlisting Native American participants. For our DC festival, I unsuccessfully attempted to engage Native American scholars and musicians from as far away as Texas, New Mexico, and California. My greatest disappointment was the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, which declined to partner the festival even though it presented in concert the South Dakota Symphony’s Lakota Music Project, brought to DC at the invitation of PostClassical Ensemble. A staff member explained that Farwell lacked “authenticity.” But the Hako claims no authenticity. Though its inspiration is a Great Plains ritual celebrating a symbolic union of Father and Son, though it incorporates passages evoking a processional, or an owl, or a lighting storm, it does not chart a programmatic narrative. Rather, it is a 20-minute sonata-form that documents the composer’s enthralled subjective response to a gripping Native American ritual. At our festival, a sensational performance of the Hako by the Dakota String Quartet (comprising the principal strings of the South Dakota Symphony) ignited a thunderous ovation. This is a work that skillfully builds to an enraptured close, marked “with breadth and exaltation.” It is Arthur Farwell’s rapture that is here “authentic.”

Sudip Bose did not attend our Monday night concert, with the Hako. In Anne Midgette’s view, the Hako “did little with its musical ideas.” A third critic, Emily Wright for Strings Magazine, was more sympathetic but could not resist terming Farwell “perhaps naive” — meaning what? Unlike Bose’s, in The American Scholar, her summary of the Farwell story was vague and inaccurate. Her mild approbation was unconsciously patronizing.

Other Farwell compositions are differently conceived. They more resemble transcriptions or adaptations of Native American song. Pawnee Horses attempts to evoke the complexity of Indian rhythms and tunes. But it would be glib to infer that he here aspires to “authenticity.”

So what was Farwell trying to do? He believed it was a democratic obligation of Americans of European descent to try to understand the indigenous Americans they displaced and oppressed – to preserve something of their civilization; to find a path toward reconciliation. His Indianist compositions attempt to mediate between Native American ritual and the Western concert tradition. Like Bartok in Transylvania, like Stravinsky in rural Russia, he endeavored to fashion a concert idiom that would paradoxically project the integrity of unvarnished vernacular dance and song. He aspired to capture specific musical characteristics – but also something additional, something ineffable and elemental, “religious and legendary.” He called it – a phrase belonging to another time and place – “race spirit.”

As a young man, Farwell visited with Indians on Lake Superior. He hunted with Indian guides. He had out-of-body experiences. Later, in the Southwest, he collaborated with the charismatic Charles Lummis, a pioneer ethnographer. For Lummis, Farwell transcribed hundreds of Indian and Hispanic melodies, using either a phonograph or local Indian singers.  Even so, our present-day criterion of “authenticity” is a later construct, unknown in Farwell’s day. If he was subject to criticism during his lifetime, it was for being naïve and irrelevant, not disrespectful or false. The music historian Beth Levy – a rare contemporary student of the Indianists movement in music – pithily summarizes that Farwell embodies a state of tension intermingling “a scientific emphasis on anthropological fact” with “a subjective identification bordering on rapture.”

Other writings perpetuate misleading assumptions. John Troutman’s Indian Blues (2009), a valuable treatment of “American Indians and the Politics of Music, 1879-1934,” groups Farwell with other Indianists “dedicated to the production of Indian themes palatable to non-Indian ears . . . they seemed in the end to share much more in common with the imagery found in Tin Pan Alley numbers than with the performances as originally observed and recorded by the ethnologists.” This verdict may fit Charles Wakefield Cadman, also mentioned by Troutman. But Farwell cannot credibly be dismissed in the same breath; Troutman has not done the homework. Neither does the distinguished Native-American ethnomusicologist Tara Browner, in a 1997 American Music article, undertake any concerted effort to assess the varied style and caliber of Farwell’s Indianist output. Though she prefers him to Edward MacDowell (who lacked Farwell’s passion for ethnology), Brower expresses regret that Farwell failed to “seek permission” to “incorporate” Native American music in his own. But in 1905, when Pawnee Horses was conceived, no composer, writer, or painter adapting Native American music and ritual would have thought to do that. The only present-day Native-American Farwell authority of whom I am aware is the pianist Lisa Cheryl Thomas, who admires and performs him.

Here is Sudip Bose, in his American Scholar review:

“To be sure, we can look back at Farwell’s interactions with Native American cultures, and find him lacking in certain areas. . . . Beth Levy writes that the composer’s attitudes toward Native Americans ‘never completely slough[ed] off their skin of exoticism.’ . . . Yet it cannot be denied that Farwell’s reverence for Native American music was genuine. . . . It’s a tricky thing—trying to come to terms with Farwell in our time. His perceived flaws provide detractors with enough justification to reject him out of hand. To them, it doesn’t matter what his music sounds like, or what part it played in the evolution of classical music in the United States. To them, Farwell is simply a white man who made a living at the expense of marginalized peoples. This, I believe, not only misrepresents the composer and his intentions, but it also uses the politics of our current moment to form loose judgments about a very distant time. . . . I would also like to assert that Farwell, despite his keenest ethnographic instincts, was not an ethnographer. His principal aim was not to document Native music, and certainly not to compose it. Rather, he was writing classical music—an anti-modernist classical music, rooted in diatonic harmony and sonata form, that he felt best represented America.”


Classical music lives in the concert hall and the opera house. But classical composers – many of them – crave the primal. It impels them to compose, no questions asked. Bartok in rural Transylvania, Falla in the gypsy caves of Granada were galvanized by elemental songs and dances they proceeded to diligently research. Harry Burleigh – a frequent topic of this blog – was impelled to turn the sorrow songs once sung by his grandfather into tuxedoed concert songs. These transformations will always be genuinely controversial. Flamenco purists find El amor brujo denatured. Zora Neale Hurston found concert spirituals sanitized. But these are aesthetic, not moral judgments.

At our Saturday night conclave, pondering “cultural appropriation,” an audience member suggested a bell curve, with respectful appropriation at one end and cultural theft at the other. But an aesthetic bell curve makes more sense to me. When appropriation makes us cringe, it becomes kitsch – dictionary-defined as “in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality.” The most popular Indianist song was “From the Land of the Sky-Blue Waters,” composed by Charles Wakefield Cadman in 1909. I would call that a specimen of tuneful kitsch. Though Cadman adapted an actual Native American tune, the relationship to source material is merely expedient, self-evidently casual. Cadman’s song is as remote from Pawnee Horses as a balalaika orchestra playing “Dark Eyes” is remote from Stravinsky’s Les noces.

Farwell explicitly declared himself an enemy of kitsch. He did not always succeed. To my ears, his Navajo War Dance No. 1 in its piano and choral versions – pieces on that New World LP I encountered decades ago – are “in poor taste.” They sound tacky, superficially exotic. My daughter would call them “cheesy.” Removed from the context of Farwell’s better efforts, they suggest a nonchalant submission to cliche.

In any event: Farwell is an essential component of the American musical odyssey. As I have too many times had occasion to observe, the appropriation critique suppresses historical inquiry. It also cancels opportunities to engage with artworks of high consequence. Charles Ives’s Second Symphony is one of the supreme American achievements in symphonic music. Its Civil War finale quotes “Old Black Joe,” a blackface minstrel song by Stephen Foster, by way of expressing sympathy for the slave. When there are students in the classroom who cannot get past that, it is their loss.

Even worse is the chilling effect of the war cry. If Farwell is today off limits, it is partly because of fear – of castigation by a neighbor. I know because I have seen it.

Opinions will differ about the caliber of his music. But it must be heard.

Stay tuned for a December blog linking to “PostClassical” webcasts featuring the “Hako” Quartet and five more Farwell piano and vocal compositions recorded in live performance at our DC festival. 


  1. Brilliant rebuttal to populist, anti intellectual plaver from critics failing to do their due diligence.
    While appropriation of African American music is an every day occurrence, enriching our cultural experience, Native American influences (and appropriation) are largely absent in our music culture. That is the shame here. We should appreciate the few who have tried, however imperfectly, to weave some Native American elements into our culture,
    Any one who attended the Post Classical Ensemble events, left with a greater respect for Native American culture and Falwell’s attempts to convey that tthrough music created a yearning for more. And asking why such such attempts were and remain so few.

  2. I very much appreciate this article and wish you the best of luck in your continuing work on these projects. In Northern New Mexico, our lives are surrounded by the melding of cultures. It affects our food, architecture, life styles, religions, spirituality marriages, families, traditions, languages, businesses, and identities. There is no part of life that is not touched by the mingling of the Native, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures. Inevitably there have been cases of superficial appropriation that is tasteless, tacky, stealing. But as a whole over the 500 year history of cultural interaction, the melding, sharing, and neighborliness has produced a hybrid society that is one of America’s most beautiful cultural achievements. As we work to become a more tolerant and integrated society, I think the way we explore human identity through shared cultural experiences and perspectives will be increasingly valued. In a sense, I think Northern New Mexico shows the beauty of what America can become.

  3. Wonderful article. I first heard of Farwell when I obtained the publications of the Wa-Wan Press as reprinted back in the 1970s. He and the other composers who participated in that adventure truly believed in what they were doing, and their efforts should not be easily dismissed. They were trying to develop an American music from native sources after all.

    Although off-topic, Farwell also wrote quite a bit of music that had nothing to do with Indian themes or culture. Like other composers of that era like Edgar Stillman Kelley, Frederick Converse and Phillip Greeley Clapp, there are several others whose music we should look at again.

  4. WenatcheeTheHatchet says

    Recent efforts to gain new hearings for Farwell’s music and for Coleridge-Taylor’s music is interesting to keep track of as I’ve been reading up on and listening to work by both composers in the last year.

    Farwell was, if making use of Native American music, directly gaining access to it, while Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha cantata cycle drew from Longfellow’s strictly fictional Native American character. Couldn’t it be argued that if Farwell is off limits for appropriating Native American music that Coleridge-Taylor should be even more off limits by that reasoning, since Coleridge-Taylor’s most famous work is an adaptation of a poem of a Native American that is a poetic fabrication?

    This kind of argument seems unfair to both Farwell and Coleridge-Taylor, both of whom wrote works that go beyond the scope of current discussions and debates about authenticity of material and appropriation. Farwell’s Polytonal Studies seem worth checking out and don’t seem to have anything at all to do with his “Indianist” works, per Jeffrey B Sultanof’s comment. If those works are in print I’d be curious to find out where to get them.

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