George Whitefield Chadwick was a central figure in American music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along with Edward MacDowell and Amy Cheney Beach, among others, Chadwick and his music were part of a New England group of composers whose work combined 19th century Romanticism with the Realist trends of visual arts. Chadwick studied music in Europe from 1877-1880, and was drawn to the lush pastoral style of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.
Chadwick’s musical activities included conducting, performing, and teaching – his composition students included William Grant Still and Florence Price – as well as his own compositions. During his tenure as director of the New England Conservatory, from 1897-1930, Chadwick built the school into an internationally renowned institution.
In 1895, Chadwick was asked to compose a piece for a local orchestra to perform on tour. He completed the first two movements of his Symphonic Sketches in 1895 and what became the fourth movement in 1896; he added an additional section in 1904.
“I determined to make it American in style – as I understood the term,” said Chadwick of the Sketches. For Chadwick, American-ness in music featured sharp rhythms, off-beat syncopations, and many shifts of both tempo and mood.
Chadwick specified the four movements of Symphonic Sketches could be performed either as a group or individually. He also wrote a brief poem in the score at the beginning of each movement. Jubilee is based on Chadwick’s warm memories of the 1869 Boston Peace Jubilee, a music festival that lasted five days and featured more than 11,000 participants in orchestral, choral, and solo performances. Chadwick wrote: “No cool gray tones for me!/Give me the warmest red and green/A cornet and a tambourine/To paint MY jubilee! /For when pale flutes and oboes play/To sadness I become a prey/Give me the violets and the May/But no gray skies for me!”
© Elizabeth Schwartz