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  • “This War Is Too Dreadful to Write About”: Composer George Whitefield Chadwick’s Reactions to World War I1
  • Marianne Betz (bio)

When the United States officially entered the Great War in 1917, this resonated in a hitherto unknown wave of patriotism that affected the German-affiliated musical life in many American cities on various levels. A confusion of emotions emerged with the declaration of war. In Boston, George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931), one of the city’s leading composers and director of the New England Conservatory since 1897, even began to doubt the importance of musical activity as such. “Over all hangs this dreadful foreboding of impending calamity,” Chadwick wrote in distress. “How can one think of music when the future holds such dreadful possibilities?”2 Chadwick’s reactions, both verbal and musical, highlight the impact that the nationalism aroused by the war had on music and on musical activities. The severe blow that struck Boston’s cultural life as a result of the growing anti-German climate shook to the core the foundations of its most important musical ensemble, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and thus deeply affected Chadwick, himself a key figure in Boston’s musical networks, in terms of both his personal life and his productivity as a composer.

On 5 May 1918, about one year after the declaration of war on Germany on 6 April 1917, the military diction of a headline in the New York Times [End Page 447] announced a seismic event: “Dropping the Pilot of Premier Symphony—Citizens of Boston Take Task. Major Higginson Resigns.”3 Eighty-four-year-old Henry Lee Higginson, entrepreneur, philanthropist, music lover, and veteran of the Civil War, had been an icon. Since the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881 Higginson had, through his singlehanded initiative, remained the sole sponsor and administrator of this ensemble, shaping it on the lines of the famous orchestras of Vienna, Dresden, and Leipzig, and he therefore hired only Austrian or German conductors. Growing anti-German sentiments allowed dissatisfaction with the Germanophile orientation of the orchestra to emerge, in spite of Higginson’s impeccable merit and status.

Not only were programs featuring the music of Austro-German composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Wagner now regarded as rather insensitive choices in time of war, but also the fact that one of the leading orchestras in the United States was led by an obviously German conductor was criticized and pulled to pieces by the newspapers. Beyond that, it had become a confirmed habit among many American orchestras to display the flag and to open a concert with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the latter an option both Higginson and Charles Ellis, manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, were not very fond of in the context of symphonic music.4 Things came to a head when conductor Karl Muck, the former Hofkapellmeister of the German kaiser Wilhelm II, was reported as refusing to add “The Star-Spangled Banner” to concerts performed by the orchestra. The situation was tense. Thus at a rehearsal on 26 October 1917, as Chadwick noted in his memoirs, “Mr. Higginson appeared on the platform with Dr. Muck’s resignation in his hand. He told the audience that if he accepted it, it would mean the end of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and he left it to them to decide. When Dr. Muck came on the stage he received a tremendous ovation.”5

Muck and Chadwick had been fellow students in Leipzig.6 Later, during his sabbatical leave in 1905–6, Chadwick himself had served as a headhunter for Higginson, until Muck was finally engaged in 1906.7 In Boston he became known not only as an outstanding conductor but also as a supporter of American composers, whose works he frequently put on the program—among them several of Chadwick’s compositions. Beyond that, Anita and Karl Muck became good friends with the Chadwick family.8

Muck stayed on after the incident at the rehearsal, although he feared that, despite being a Swiss citizen, his former affiliation with the Prussian court might give the anti-German crowd further reason to complain. Everything exploded when on 30 October 1917 in Providence, Rhode...


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pp. 447-473
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