Arthur Farwell has been called ‘the most neglected composer in [American musical] history.’ As the leader of the ‘Indianists’ movement, Farwell believed it was a democratic obligation of Americans of European descent to try to understand the indigenous Americans they displaced and oppressed. To this end, he merged elements of Indian music and lore with Western concert forms. The performances here recorded originated at a landmark PostClassical Ensemble festival at Washington’s National Cathedral. The Dakota String Quartet, resident quartet of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra (SDSO), comprises principal string players of the orchestra. First violin Doosook Kim has been concertmaster with the SDSO since 1995 and performs as a soloist and chamber musician in the US and internationally.
The subtitle of this new Naxos American Classics series album of music premised on Native American elements is “Arthur Farwell: America’s Neglected Composer.” America’s embarrassing disregard of its composers and artistic endeavour in general has left no shortage of unrecognized creators, but composer and critic A. Walter Kramer (d. 1969, himself prolific yet ignored) singled out Farwell as “probably the most neglected composer in our history,” a crime particularly severe when considering that “at the turn of the century no one wrote music with greater seriousness of purpose or fought harder for American music” than Arthur Farwell, “an intellectual and spiritual giant.”
Farwell’s purpose, which amplified Dvořák’s earlier call that American composers execute an about-face versus stale European archetypes, embraced sources of inspiration specific to the North American continent, including folk music, Black and Hispanic musics, and, perhaps most importantly, Native American music. This may have been the recipe for his eventual sidelining. As Dvořák himself discovered after writing his “American Quartet,” the broader public was nowhere near ready to tolerate vernacular or non-Anglo material in its concert music. In June of 1893, subsequent to the premiere of the quartet in Iowa (Dvořák had composed it there while in residence), a begrudging editorial in the Decorah Republican faulted the composer for inadequate attempts at making “vulgar things…approximate the divine,” and unabashedly used the most egregious of racial epithets in print. That epithet stuck as the subtitle for Op. 96 quartet for some time.
Farwell was 21 then, and keenly aware of the controversial aspect of transcending cultural boundaries. Undeterred, and in fact incited, he forged ahead with this mission, entreating other composers of his generation to take up the gauntlet as well. By the early 1900’s he had begun publishing what would be a steady stream of compositions predicated on Native American melodies that he had internalized, and personal experiences that he had had in the company of Native people in secular and ceremonial contexts. This sustained trajectory spanned roughly 25 years, with resonances occurring much later in his career.
The present release brings Farwell into the light again, after 60 or 70 years of relative obscurity since his death. It traces the maturation of his response to Native influences from naive complementation (as in Dawn) through engagement with the rhythmic asymmetry and tonal inflection basic to Native melody (as in the Navajo War Dance No. 2 and Pawnee Horses) to conjugal synthesis of traditions in The Hako quartet, the culmination of this creative journey. The disc opens with the world premiere recording of The Hako. That in itself is of maximal importance. Why did it take a century for this work to resurface after its first (and perhaps solitary) performance? Not only is it the composer’s peak achievement, it was the first distinctive and confident step ever taken in American string quartet writing, unique in scope and integrative process. Inspired by the Pawnee tribal ceremony of the same name, The Hako quartet honors “the other” not by imitating indigenous musical traits, but by allowing these and additional cultural aspects to guide and permeate the form on multiple levels. Honor the Indian? Yes - this was an intentional part of Farwell’s purpose. While the United States still echoed with indigenophobic sentiments and slogans such as “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” “Kill them all, big and small, nits make lice,” “Indian giver” (that one most ironical), and the damaging three words in the Declaration of Independence, “merciless Indian Savages” still resonating, Farwell dared to take a contradictory stance in favor of social justice and humanitarian understanding. Even as First Nations children were being abducted from their families and forced into boarding schools that would “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” by imperious assimilationist means, and government policy banned Native cultural practice to extinguish language, religion, music and dance, history and customs, Farwell held fast against the tide as a citizen of conscience. Though 1992 ushered in a two-decade long period during which sympathies began to change, we find ourselves now many steps back, such that tribal sovereignty has been rescinded in a number of cases, and just as alarming if not more, states such as Texas and Ohio are legislating to abolish teaching about Native Americans, MLK, and suffrage in public schools.
In terms of combatting this resurgent trend, the issuing of Farwell’s music on this new Naxos CD could not be timelier. Made all the more interesting by the international participation of artistic and technical team members, the pianistic contribution of the Italian virtuoso Emanuele Arciuli - a good portion of it recorded on a luscious Fazioli 212 at Area DIG studio near Bari on the Adriatic coast - offers multicolored and richly communicative listening pleasure. Arciuli himself is a passionate collector, supporter and promoter of contemporary Native American art. He has also commissioned a host of current day Native American composers as well, among them Raven Chacon (Navajo) and Barbara Croall (Odawa), and oft performed and recorded their music. He is the perfect choice for this repertoire and shows himself to be a consummate collaborator for lyric baritone William Sharp, whose interpretation of the three songs on the recording demonstrates deep contemplation of the texts and the complex background associated with them. Curiously some accompanimental gestures and sonorities in these songs come across to me as proto-Messiaen.
The pairing of tracks 5 and 6 is intriguing. This is the same piece, Pawnee Horses, in a 1937 choral version (which Toscanini raved about), and the original piano version of 1905. Its extreme brevity belies its compositional importance as an exemplar of successful bicultural fusion. It does not grope for connection but establishes common ground for its diverse components. The superb choral performance by the University of Texas Chamber Singers led by James Morrow vividly reveals the polymodal layering and polymetric implications. As a point of comparison, we might view this in relation to Busoni’s setting of a Cheyenne victory song, the 2nd entry in his Indian Diary of 1915. Of the set of 4 pieces, this is the one that comes closest to “getting it right.” Although I’m a Busoni fan in general, and from certain angles continue to be fascinated by this suite, it is in No. 2 that he verges on a convincing solution. Ultimately it, like the others, retreats into pianistic cliché and falls short of fulfilling its promise. Farwell, on the other hand, admirably meets the challenge a decade earlier in Pawnee Horses, and in Navajo War Dance No. 2, heard on track 7.
The program of the disc eschews chronological order of composition, reserving the right to place as its headliner Farwell’s String Quartet in A major, Op. 65 The Hako in the track 1 spot. One could not think of better advocates for this work than the Dakota String Quartet, whose members are principal players of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. In their roles within the orchestra, they interact on a regular basis with Native musicians and audience members via the SDSO’s Lakota Music Project, an initiative that dates back to 2005. The DSQ’s performance has a quality of reverence about it and by turn a sense of ecstasy. They have diligently considered all of the composer’s idiosyncratic indications: “Majestic, but remote;” “ghostly;” “somewhat veiled, as in a dream;” “as of the supernatural;” “With breadth and exaltation;” etc. And they bring out the programmatic effects of distant drumming, sounds of the owl and woodpecker, allusions to wind, thunder and lightning. Even upon first listening, one appreciates the ability of the ensemble to maximize character contrast in this uninterrupted, 18-minute narrative. The ceremony that inspired Farwell was documented at the outset of the 1900’s by ethnographer Alice C. Fletcher. To grasp the extent of what Farwell’s quartet achieves, the listener is encouraged to consult Fletcher and Murie, The Hako: A Pawnee Ceremony, readily available through vendors and libraries in various formats physical and online.
I wish that this recording had been available during the 25 years that my social justice course “Native American Music & Belief” was an undergraduate offering. It is a long overdue and most welcome addition to the crossover discography.
– MusicWeb International (Curt Cacioppo)