an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

BURIED TREASURE: Arthur Farwell’s “Hako” — Will String Quartets Have the Courage to Perform It?

FARWELL, A.: Songs, Choral and Piano Works (America's Neglected Composer) (W. Sharp, Arciuli, Dakota String Quartet)

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? 


  1. America is a country unexcelled in neglecting its composers. So marginal is the value placed on the arts in general that Saul Bellow said, “It is sheer madness to want to make art in America.” In the case of Farwell, even the visibility he achieved in his lifetime was due almost entirely to his personal dynamism rather than external approbation or appraisal. Though he is now reviled and lumped together with supremacist agents of white patriarchy, his ethical stance as an artist and citizen made him heretic among mainstream contemporaries. In that context, it could be argued that he assumed the role of a critical race theorist a century or more before the present trend. Aside from American indifference to the arts, questioning Manifest Destiny and “the insatiable progress of our race,” as James Carleton had phrased it, echoing instead such sentiments as those expressed by Edward Wynkoop, who came to view Indians as “superior beings,” certainly did not serve Farwell as a formula for recognition. (General Carleton, along with Kit Carson, led the seizure of Navajo lands in the mid-1860’s; Major Wynkoop, who experienced a reversal of opinion regarding Indians, was writing about his encounter with Cheyenne representatives during the same period). Heir to a rapacious mindset that heard Sunday school teachers imparting to their youngsters indigenophobic rhymes, such as “Kill them all, big and small – nits make lice!”, Farwell should be credited for his model defense against the genocidal norm.

    Farwell acts out his humanitarian feelings most consequentially in his HAKO quartet. Compositionally his pinnacle achievement, it rises to capstone importance as the first major stride taken in American string quartet writing, both for its scope and its integrative processes. About 50 years ago I discovered the HAKO ceremony of the Pawnee, Farwell’s source of inspiration, and have returned to study of it periodically ever since. Only very recently did I become acquainted with Farwell’s quartet, thanks to the efforts of Joe Horowitz, although I had been well aware of other examples of his work previously. Before anything else, I have to say that without having fully explored the source material, one misses the majority of what Farwell has attained here, or contrariwise how he may have strayed. The transcription of the ceremony has been library accessible for 120 years. Hardcover came out 10 years ago for under $30, paperback under $15. You can read it on Kindle for less than $10.

    Bravi to Joe, the Dakota String Quartet, and all who made this premiere recording of Farwell’s HAKO possible! The work is unique in so many ways. The risk that Farwell takes in stretching the single, sustained movement form to almost twice the duration of earlier one movement sonatas by Scriabin and Berg, for example, is in itself daring, especially considering the new music attention span of 1923. That aspect, if the listener stays with it, in itself can be engrossing. And the rhetorical pattern that Farwell establishes, drawn directly from the liturgical structure of the ceremony, of intimation answered by revelation, easily could elicit a sense of rapture. How the sonata scheme applies is another matter entirely, better reserved for a graduate theory seminar (my analysis reveals a binary structure or double exposition without an enclosed development section…).

an ArtsJournal blog