Review | Douglas W. Shadle – Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise

Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise. By Douglas W. Shadle. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016 [ix, 330 p. ISBN: 9780199358649 (hardcover), $55; varies (ebook).] Musical examples, illustrations, bibliography, notes, index, companion website.

The history of American symphonic music is a well-rehearsed tale that typically begins at the end of the nineteenth century with Antonin Dvořák’s sojourn to the United States. As the story goes, Dvořák composed his ninth symphony, “From the New World,” as an example of how American composers should incorporate native and folk elements into their works to create a national style, thereby ushering in a new era of American orchestral music exemplified by the likes of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. Douglas Shadle’s debut monograph disrupts that narrative and is a welcome addition to the oft neglected area of American orchestras and American symphonic music. In the nineteenth century alone, nearly one-hundred symphonies were penned by more than fifty composers who could claim the United States as their home—astounding numbers that illuminate a lacuna in our understanding of the repertoire. Orchestrating the Nation is Shadle’s attempt to acknowledge this forgotten repertoire and broaden our understanding of the symphony as both a genre and a transatlantic nationalist force in the nineteenth century.

Shadle probes several primary sources to provide a more complete, and complex, picture of both musical and national thought during the maturation of the United States. Through an exploration of reception histories and personal documents, Shadle shows that while American audiences were receptive to their homegrown composers, many critics, conductors, and musicians resisted them due to notions of Germanic musical superiority—or, what Shadle dubs the “Beethoven problem.” This led to ongoing debates in America’s young musical cities—namely New York, Brooklyn, and Boston—over concert programming and support for U.S. composers. As Shadle illustrates, the influx of German musicians and conductors into the United States during the nineteenth century helped shape prevailing discourses of the time. 

Following the introduction, the book presents twelve chapters and an epilogue which are of roughly equal length. Chapter 1 outlines the various strains of thought regarding symphonic music in the United States and explores the intellectual and cultural attitudes prevalent during the first third of the century. During this period, Americans were split over how to best develop artistic autonomy—should the U.S. base its musical development on European taste or start anew? Chapters 2 through 4 introduce us to lives and works of “three prolific antebellum composers”: Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Henry Fry, and George Frederick Bristow. Heinrich is cast as the Bohemian-born “Hapless Wanderer” who capitalized on his “Americaness” abroad by composing pieces inspired by Native Americans and American scenery. Fry, the most overtly political of the three, is the “Operatic Translator” who sought to develop a national style through writing accessible pieces based on elements of Italian opera. Bristow, the “American Stalwart,” is the most traditional of the group, composing his symphonies based on the accepted German model. Chapters 5 and 6 build on this foundation to show how the lives of these composers, as well as the institutions and critics with whom they were connected, intertwined. A brief interlude addressing the Civil War marks the midway point of the narrative. Chapter 7 focuses exclusively on Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the “Pan-American,” and his use of the symphony to express his political beliefs in a continental republicanism. Chapters 8 and 10 explore the careers of John Knowles Paine (“Universal Classicist”) and Ellsworth Phelps (“Brooklyn Patriot”), respectively, while chapter 9 examines the overlap amongst Paine and the previously profiled composers Heinrich, Fry, and Bristow. Paine emerges as a highly influential figure in the classicist-Wagnerian debate—as a Harvard professor, he lectured on the universality of “genius” composers such as Bach and Beethoven and argued for a teleological approach to music history. Chapter 11 introduces us to two other composers, George Whitfield Chadwick and George Templeton Strong, and further teases out the connections amongst the book’s myriad figures. Additionally, this chapter illustrates how Wagnerism gradually came to be accepted by composers, audiences, and critics. Chapter 12 concludes where most accounts of American nationalist symphonic music begin—with Dvořák. In this chapter Shadle explores Dvořák’s role in creating a distinct American repertoire while also highlighting the hypocrisy of critics in their reviews of foreign versus American works. Shadle concludes Orchestrating the Nation with an epilogue reflecting on the continued favorability of European (mostly German) composers on American concert programs even after native-born ones were embraced by critics and audiences alike. 

Orchestrating the Nation is highly engaging book that is accessible to a wide audience. While the musical figures may be intimidating to non-musicians, musical jargon is kept to a minimum and many of Shadle’s examples are available to listen to on a companion website, a feature that I found most beneficial. As expected of a project of this size, many figures, from obscure to well-known, are introduced throughout the book and it can be dizzying at times to keep up. In the epilogue, Shadle mentions that the state of orchestral programming in the United States today still largely reflects the biases accrued in the nineteenth century (canonic “masterworks” and a lack of contemporary composers), which is true, though there are some notable characters in our own era who have begun to push back hard against these standards—Robert Spano with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Teddy Abrams with the Louisville Orchestra, and Marin Alsop with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. 

Generally, Shadle avoids theoretical discussions in this book, presenting instead a wealth of historical information that I suspect will be probed and analyzed by other scholars and students alike. I was particularly interested in Shadle’s use of the term “value,” which, while clear enough in this context, could have benefited from the inclusion of critical, cultural, or anthropological theories of value (Appadurai 1988, Graeber 2001, Marx 1867, Myers 2002).  That said, Orchestrating the Nation is a noteworthy contribution to the literature not only for its reimagining of the American orchestral scene but also for the interest it will undoubtedly stir up in the composers and compositions left to the “dustbins of history.”

By Kerry Brunson