Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes John Alden Carpenter, Skyscrapers (1926)

John Alden Carpenter was a lifelong Midwesterner: he was born in Chicago in 1876 and died there in 1951. He reached his compositional maturity in the twentieth century. He was a businessman and thus, a compositional amateur. (“Amateur” in the best sense: as a practitioner of something not for money but for love, which is what “ama-teur” means.) He adored American popular culture and music and he filled his compositions with aspects of both.

John Alden Carpenter in 1921
John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) in 1921

As opposed to Paine, Buck, Foote, and MacDowell, all of whom came to their compositional maturity in the nineteenth century. (For our information, Paine and Buck were born almost 40 years before Carpenter.) Paine, Buck, and Foote were all born in New England; MacDowell in New York. They all had academic musical careers; they all worshipped at the altar of German music; and they were all embarrassed by what they perceived of as the provincial cretinism of American musical culture.

As such, this stylistically schizoid album inadvertently tells us something of the “story” of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American concert music: the reliance on German musical models by academic composers working primarily in the nineteenth century, and the celebration of things “American” by some composers working in the early twentieth century and beyond. It’s a story I began to tell in yesterday’s Music History Monday post.

John Alden Carpenter was that luckiest (to my mind) sort of composer: as an unaffiliated amateur, financially well-off, someone who didn’t need to publish-or-perish and/or impress academic colleagues and “superiors”, he could compose what he wanted, how he wanted, and when he wanted. He was among the first (if not the first) American composer to be powerfully influenced by the modernist music of both Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky. Increasingly, as the twentieth century progressed, ragtime and then jazz came to occupy a special place in Carpenter’s musical heart as well.…

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