In the world of classical music, it sometimes happens that a major work lies dormant, undiscovered and unperformed, for a very long time. Consider the case of The Trojans, today known as a peak achievement in Romantic opera. Berlioz finished composing it in 1858. The first complete performance took place in 1890. Not until Colin Davis championed and recorded The Trojans in the 1960s did it become widely recognized as something more than an intriguing anomaly.
In the world of American classical music, Charles Ives is the champion composer of buried treasure. The most famous belated Ives discoveries were John Kirkpatrick’s 1938 Town Hall performance of the Concord Sonata (today extolled as the summit of the American keyboard repertoire) and Leonard Bernstein’s premiere of the Symphony No. 2 (arguably the most iconic American symphony) with the New York Philharmonic in 1951. Ives finished the Concord Sonata around 1915. He finished his Second Symphony in 1901.
Right now, it’s finally become inevitable that William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, premiered by Leopold Stokowski in 1934, will become known as a galvanizing achievement in American symphonic music. Incredibly, our major orchestras still haven’t gotten around to it – but they will. (Angel Gil-Ordonez will lead PostClassical Ensemble in the DC premiere this coming March.)
And then there is Arthur Farwell’s Hako String Quartet of 1922. A new Naxos CD, produced by PostClassical Ensemble and scheduled for release next month, features the world premiere recording – which just had its broadcast premiere via David Osenberg’s always enterprising WWFM Classical Network as a new installment in WWFM’s “PostClassical” series. The terrific performance is by the Dakota String Quartet – principal string players of Delta David Gier’s remarkable South Dakota Symphony. Go to 12:50 of Part II here.
The Naxos CD is entitled: “Arthur Farwell – America’ s Neglected Composer.” In my forthcoming book Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music,” I write about Farwell extensively as “America’s Forbidden Composer.” As I remark in my spoken introduction to the WWFM broadcast: neglected or forbidden, Farwell isn’t played for reasons political, not musical. As the leader of our Indianist movement in music, he’s today condemned as a cultural appropriator.
I have discussed Farwell extensively in this space. What was he 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 for the Hako – I do not know of a more engrossing string quartet by an American. I write in the program notes for the new Naxos release:
The twenty-minute Hako String Quartet is the longest of Farwell’s Indianist compositions and the only one traditionally structured. A one-movement sonata form, it marks a pivot toward the chamber works (none of them Indianist) he would subsequently write. The point of inspiration is the Hako ceremony of the Great Plains tribes of the Pawnee Nation, a celebration of the symbolic union of Father and Son to maintain peace and fertility in the cosmos. Although at various moments the players are asked to evoke the woodpecker (to favor the storm gods) and the owl (guardian of the night), and although Native American tunes are quoted, the quartet is at the same time a subjective personal response to an Indian ceremony. It strives to honor and convey the “great mystery . . . to which refreshing source American life is leading us back form the artificialities and technicalities which have latterly beset European culture.” To the performers of the Hako Quartet Farwell wrote: “Certain things must be brought to the interpretation before it has even a chance of proving itself. E.g., the immensely reverential spirit of the Indian in general, and his immense dignity, and the unction with which each syllable is taken in his singing.”
The Hako Quartet claims no authenticity. Rather, it documents the composer’s enthralled subjective response to a gripping Native American ritual. It is Arthur Farwell’s rapture that is here “authentic.”
Musically, the Hako cannot be written off. Will today’s string quartets possess the enterprise and courage to perform it?