Unsung Heroes Music


The Fourth of July is a time to celebrate America and its music. On that important day, concert presenters round up the usual suspects: Sousa marches, Copland hits, Gershwin songs, Bernstein show tunes. But there are so many others who made wonderful music in this country, composers who deserve to be heard, but rarely are. There names may not ring a bell, but in this Active Minds program, we'll bring some of them front and center – Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Amy Beach, George Bristow, William Henry Fry, Anthony Heinrich, John Knowles Paine and George Chadwick. Wave the flag for these marvelous music-makers!


Over the centuries, thousands and thousands of painters, sculptors, poets, novelists and composers have plied their trade – some of them making a nice living and garnering praise from their contemporaries – only to be lost and all but forgotten as time left them behind. Why? Because a handful of truly brilliant creative individuals rose to the top, and remained there. Survival of the Fittest? More like Survival of the Greatest. This is true of the almost-invisible history of American classical music. Was there anyone before Gershwin, Copland and Sousa? You bet. In the early days, when the British still patrolled our streets, inventive hymn-makers such as William Billings, Daniel Read and Supply Belcher (yes, that was his name) created sacred song books that taught Americans how to sing in harmony and to keep steady during “fuguing tunes” inspired by the complex counterpoint of Europe's Baroque masters. This was the First New England School, based in Boston and points north. In the early- to mid-1800s, a new voice was heard – a curious chap named Anthony Philip Heinrich, born in Bohemia, but committed to creating an “American” sound. Holed up in a log cabin in Kentucky's mountains, he wrote all sorts of chamber music and orchestral music with such quirky titles as “Barbecue Divertimento” and “The Migration of American Passenger Pigeons.” He even managed to gather enough instrumentalists in  Lexington, Kentucky to offer the U.S. premiere of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1. He later chaired the first meeting of what would become the New York Philharmonic. And there were so many others. William Henry Fry was a New York music critic who wrote this country's first opera. Most notable was a group of ambitious, late-19th Century composers who became known as the “Boston Six”: John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell and Horatio Parker. Their names have remained on the fringe for most music-lovers in the U.S. – but their contributions were enormous. Paine, for example, established the nation's first university music program (at Harvard). Beach, though she was shackled by her demanding husband's requirements, has finally emerged as a fresh and original voice in American music, and an inspiration to women composers everywhere. One fascinating figure deserves to be included in the group: Margaret Ruthven Lang, the daughter of B.J. Lang, an influential pianist and conductor (he was on the podium in New York City for the world premiere of Tchaikovsky's famous Piano Concerto No. 1). Early on, Margaret wrote some interesting, forward-looking music for chamber and choral groups. She holds the record for the longest continual subscription to the Boston Symphony: 91 years (she died in 1972 at age 104). Colorful figures such as Louis Moreau Gottschalk achieved rock-star-like fame, but are known only to a small percentage of music lovers. It was Gottschalk, with his rhythmically exciting piano works, who paved the way for the birth of ragtime toward the close of the 19th Century. We know about Scott Joplin as the King of Ragime (mainly through the use of his music in the movie hit, “The Sting”). But there were others who wrote wonderful piano pieces that led to the emergence of jazz in the 1920s. Let's honor the memory of James Scott, Joseph Lamb and Louis Chauvin.

Exploration Questions

  • Who were the great turn-of-the-century music teachers, each of whom exerted huge influence on America's best-known composers?
  • What is a fuguing tune, and what is shape-note singing?
  • What was “The Musical Battle of the Century”? (Hint: it involved William Henry Fry.)

Reflective Questions

  • Why do some talented artists fade away, while others stand the test of time?
  • Do you have a favorite artist, writer, composer, whom others have not discovered?
  • What defines greatness in a composer and his or her work?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Broyles, Michael. Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music. Yale University Press. 2004. 398 pages. Exceptional writing and research highlight this fascinating look at composers who took the road less traveled. Features in-depth chapters on William Billings and Anthony Philip Heinrich, “the log cabin composer.”
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  • Shadle, Douglas. Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise. Oxford University Press. 2015. 344 pages. This is a much-needed look at the phenomenon of full-size Symphonies written by numerous composers before the year 1900. Naturally, there are detailed references to such unsung heroes as Heinrich, Paine and others. A fascinating story.
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