Symphony Saturday

The American composers of the Romantic era are an interesting bunch, because they exist in a kind of musical purgatory. Their music is not heard much, mainly because it’s all pretty firmly ensconced in the European symphonic tradition, and thus isn’t terribly interesting in any nationalistic sense. But a lot of their music is still quite good, and the trouble with musical purgatory — especially as time passes — is that it captures works that might not rank with the greatest masterpieces, but which also don’t deserve the sad obscurity that awaits most works of art.

This symphony popped up as a recommendation for me on YouTube a while back. I had never heard of John Knowles Paine before that moment, and I listened to his Symphony No. 1 on a whim and found it quite pleasing, muscular and dramatic and at times very lyrical. The knock on the American music of the time — that it is too essentially European — is in evidence here, quite strongly. There is nothing about this symphony that sounds the least bit uniquely “American”, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that the American voice had not developed yet into its own sound. That would not happen until the early 20th century, when jazz finally came along. Instead, the work should be heard as a fine piece in the Brahmsian tradition (Paine was almost an exact contemporary of Brahms).

Here is John Knowles Paine’s Symphony No. 1 in C-minor.

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