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Happy Birthday, Boston!

Boston, Massachusetts
Todd Kent
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The city known as Tremontaine, after the locale’s three mountains, was renamed Boston by English settlers who had come from Boston, Lincolnshire. The official renaming was on September 7, 1630 in the old-style calendar, which today is recognized as September 17, 1630 (More on that date “fuzziness” below in the Coda). That means that on September 17, 2030, Boston will turn 400 years old. Woohoo! That’s going to be some party!

Even though we’re 8 years away from the milestone birthday, I think all birthdays should be celebrated! To celebrate the city’s 392nd birthday we’re saluting some classical composers who had close ties to Boston.

William Billings (1746-1800) was born in Boston to a poor family. When he was 13 or 14, his father died and William had to stop his education to apprentice to a local tanner to help feed the family. Although that became his official vocation, he spent most of his life in pursuit of a music career. It’s believed that he was largely self-taught in music, although it’s possible he received some musical training from John Barry, the choir master from the New South Church. He joined Barry as a partner in Boston in 1769 and they advertised their “singing schools” in a Boston newspaper. He also taught singing in Stoughton, MA, and in Providence, RI.

Billings composed approximately 350 songs in all, and most were religious hymns along with a few patriotic anthems. Almost all the songs were for four-part chorus, singing without any musical accompaniment. Only one hymn called for organ accompaniment, and that was a piece written to celebrate a new organ in a local church. Despite having an actual trade, plus the music career, Billings died in poverty at age 54. Due to the young country’s lack of meaningful copyright laws, many of his songs were simply appropriated by others and showed up in hymnals around the country.

One of Billings’ most famous pieces today is the Revolutionary War song, “Chester.” Paul Hillier leads His Majestie’s Clerkes.

Fun fact: the Stoughton Musical Society was founded by some of his students over 200 years ago, and still performs to this day!

Although he was born in Maine, and not in Boston, John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) had a lot to do with the city’s musical advancement. In fact, he begins a long line of composers who were dubbed the “New England Classicists," or "The Second New England School," or simply "The Boston Six." Paine came from a family of music teachers and composers, and his grandfather is credited with building Maine’s first pipe organ. Paine gave organ recitals from around age 18 to fund a European music education trip. He studied music for three years, mostly in Germany, and traveled around Europe giving recitals and gaining a solid reputation as a musician.

When he returned to the United States he settled in Boston. At just 22 years old, he was appointed Harvard’s first organist and choirmaster, and helped establish the curriculum for the school’s new music department, the first college music department in the country. He stayed on as Music Professor there until 1905, and Harvard’s Paine Hall was named for him. He also served as director of the New England Conservatory, and was noted for his lecture series there. While his composing style is described as “Beethovenian,” Paine is credited with beginning America’s symphonic tradition.

Here’s Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic in Paine’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 23.

Fun fact: John Knowles Paine was the first guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in their first season!

WCRB always gets lots of enthusiastic phone calls from listeners who enjoy the music we play by George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931). He was born in Lowell, MA, and was given organ lessons by his older brother. When he was about 16 he dropped out of high school to work at his father’s insurance company, but when he traveled to Boston for work, he would take in concerts. That’s apparently what prompted his interest in pursuing a music career. He was accepted at the New England Conservatory where he studied organ, piano and music theory. Just four years later he became a music instructor at Olivet College in Michigan. It was there that his composition career began, but he realized that American composers needed to study in Europe in order to be taken seriously. He traveled and studied in Leipzig for 2 years, and then to Munich and France for an additional year, before returning to the States.

Although his early musical output relied on his German compositional education, one of the things Chadwick did differently from those who came before him was that he wanted to establish an “American” sounding catalog of music. For that matter, even while in Germany as a student, his Rip Van Winkle Overture included some American themes. He composed, conducted and performed as an organist to great acclaim, before being named Director of the New England Conservatory in 1897. He is credited with transforming the NEC into a respected music school in the style of German conservatories, with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra hired as teachers.

Here's Neeme Järvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the Rip Van Winkle Overture.

Fun fact: Chadwick wrote some of the most popular patriotic songs during World War I, including “Land of Our Hearts” and “The Fighting Men.”

Frederick Converse (1871-1940) was born in Newton, MA and went to Harvard, where he studied with John Knowles Paine. Like so many others intending to pursue a music career, Converse studied in Germany before returning to the United States. He taught at both the New England Conservatory and at Harvard, but eventually gave up teaching to devote himself to composition. Converse’s music blended the German compositional style with American themes; for example, he wrote “Flivver Ten Million,” a piece to celebrate the ten-millionth Ford vehicle!

Here's JoAnn Falletta conducting the piece with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Fun fact: The first American opera to be performed at the original Metropolitan Opera House in New York was Converse’s The Pipe of Desire in 1910But that was four years after it premiered in Boston at NEC’s Jordan Hall!

Boston’s history is rich with many cultural advancements, including in the music world. William Billings, John Knowles Paine, George Whitefield Chadwick and Frederick Converse are but a few of the American composers with ties to the city. You can be sure others will be celebrated in blog posts leading up to Boston’s 400th! Meantime, happy birthday, Boston!

Coda: OK... so why does Boston have 2 September birthdays? Here’s the explanation right from the Boston.gov website.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.