Sweet Home, New England!
When you say “New England,” pictures can’t help but come to mind of a sunny autumn day, leaves of orange, red and gold, and a white-steepled church, or maybe a covered bridge, in the middle of all that glorious color. Yes, that is New England. And for tourists and natives alike, it’s also summer concerts in the Berkshires, skiing in New Hampshire, your first maple syrup tasting in Vermont, a bed & breakfast overlooking Maine’s rocky coast, old time ships in Connecticut and a tour of the summer “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island. All that! And So. Much. More.
I love Boston, my city of birth, so much, I feel like the unofficial Mayor or Ambassador (seriously, you’d love my “Supah-Dupah Bawstin” tour, perfected over a lifetime of showing off my city to visiting family and friends); however, I, and so many other natives and newbies alike with whom I’ve spoken, claim all of New England as home because that’s how we New Englanders roll. We’re from Peabody or Hartford or Manchester, but we’re all New Englanders, too.
Many American classical composers have celebrated the specialness of New England, too. Here are some of my favorite New England musical travelogues:
Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) was born in New York City and studied piano from early childhood. At age 17 he was accepted at the Paris Conservatory, where he graduated at the top of his class. He stayed in Europe a number of years, mostly France and Germany, and studied with or became friends with the likes of Joachim Raff, Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann.
But when he and his wife came home to the U.S., he said he wanted to help create an “American sound.” Their summer property in Peterborough, New Hampshire, served as inspiration for so many of his pieces, including his New England Idyls. He doesn’t write about specific places in New England, though. In the ten short piano pieces he wants to give you a sense of place and a sense of peace as he reflects on his surroundings.
Here’s “Mid-Summer” played by Michel Legrand:
The other pieces in the Idyls have titles such as “The Joy of Autumn,” “From Puritan Days,” “With Sweet Lavender.” You’ll hear French and German influences in the pieces, but you’ll recognize New England woven through them all. To further make his point, he added a poem to the title page of each tune.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was an actual New Englander, born in Danbury, Connecticut. Unlike MacDowell’s atmospheric pieces, Ives’ Three Places in New England was place and history specific. The three movements take us from the “St. Gaudens” (the Boston Common monument to the Civil War Colonel Robert Shaw and his all-Black regiment) to“Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut,” (about the Revolutionary War) to “The Housatonic (River) at Stockbridge,” inspired by a walk he took with his wife during their honeymoon in western Massachusetts. They were composed between 1911 and 1914, with a revision in 1929.
Here’s the NEC Philharmonia conducted by Hugh Wolff:
Here’s an interesting P.S. to the Ives: In 1931 the piece was performed in Paris by Boston Chamber Orchestra conductor Nicolas Slonimsky. Many critics and contemporary composers attended. While they may not have understood all the musical cultural references such as ragtime and Revolutionary War tunes, they were impressed to be hearing an American composer describing his own country, something we hardly ever even consider nowadays.
When Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town was going to be turned into a movie in 1939, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was tapped to write the score. He was excited about the project because, not only had he seen and liked the play already, he had also spent time at the MacDowell Artists’ Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the town that was the “real” Grover’s Corners of the play.
Copland understood that he was writing music about ordinary people, the folks we see and with whom we interact everyday around here. Like a soft New England day, he didn’t want the music to overpower the film. Copland made sure his score described Grover’s Corners, without making the film about the music.
Here’s Aaron Copland conducting his own work, with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Vally Pick Weigl (1894-1982) is not a household name … and more’s the pity. Although she was born in Vienna, she and her fellow-musician husband Karl emigrated to the U.S. with their son in 1938 and became citizens in 1944. Although they settled in New York she spent a lot of time hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and visiting the MacDowell Colony. It’s not known why she wrote her New England Suite but there seems to be consensus that her frequent visits to New England were the inspiration. The Suite takes us to 4 places: “Vermont Nocturne,” “Maine Interlude,” “Berkshire Pastorale,” and “Connecticut Country Fair.” While there are a few YouTube recordings of the individual movements I could find only one rendition of the whole New England Suite. CDs of the piece are few, so here’s the whole thing to enjoy with flutist Ulrike Anton, cellist Friedemann Ludwig, and pianist Myuki Schüssler:
And finally, let’s hear from Boston Pops Conductor Laureate John Williams.
He was asked to write the score for the IMAX film New England Time Capsule, an Omnimax travelogue shown at the Museum of Science.
Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops released the first commercial recording of the piece on their American Visions album from 1997.
It happened this month. I was coming in to work and I smelled “November in New England.” No, not a local cologne. I wait for this moment every year. To me it’s experiencing a scent that is an equal mix of leaves on the ground, fireplaces, and the earth starting to quiet down, all blending in crisp, but not frigid, air. Happy November, New England!
CODA: New England probably doesn’t come first to mind for doing some sightseeing and touristy things this time of year, but whether you’re local or reading this from afar, don’t count out November. See a list of current planned events from Visit New England.