Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: John Alden Carpenter

We mark the birth on February 28, 1876 – 146 years ago today – of the American composer and pianist John Alden Carpenter, in Chicago, Illinois. He died there in the Windy City at the age of 75, on April 26, 1951.

John Alden Carpenter circa 1925
John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) circa 1925

John Alden Carpenter is certainly not a musical household name here in 2022. But 75 years ago, Carpenter was among the best known and most respected living composers, musicians (he was an outstanding pianist), and musical philanthropists in the United States. His orchestral music was regularly conducted by the likes of Walter Damrosch (who conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra), Frederick Stock (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), Leopold Stokowski, Serge Koussevitzky (the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Fritz Reiner (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), Artur Rodzinski (the New York Philharmonic), Pierre Monteux (the San Francisco Symphony), Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter (the New York Philharmonic), and Eugene Ormandy (the Philadelphia Orchestra). The list of great singers, musicians, and chamber groups that championed Carpenter’s music is equally impressive. Carpenter was the only American composer ever to be commissioned by Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) and his Ballets Russes. The product of that commission was Carpenter’s third and final ballet, Skyscrapers: A Ballet of Modern American Life (of 1924) which will be the topic of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post.

But its not just Carpenter’s well-deserved fame in his lifetime that we’re interested in but precisely how he generated that fame. He did it by being among that first generation of American composers to break free of the anti-American, pro-German bias of his Ivy League music professors and by composing music that embraced both a modernist compositional impulse and American popular musical culture – particularly ragtime and jazz – well before George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue brought those home-grown idioms to the concert halls of America in 1924.…

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