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“Very Harvard”: A Celebration


Harvard University’s Music Department — the first in the country according to the department’s Acting Chair Anne C. Shreffler — was founded by John Knowles Paine. Hired as a “teacher of sacred music, in 1861 and named Harvard’s first Professor of Music in 1875,” Paine did not live to see the Music Building which was finally constructed in 1914, eight years after his death. Yesterday afternoon, the Music Department celebrated the completion of the building’s renovations, some visible, others invisible. The celebration was somewhat of a mixed affair, “Very Harvard,” commented one gentleman leaving the building. A tour of the new hallways was absolutely the high point, the low being the intermittent snores accompanying a long and slow movement from the first string quartet of Walter Piston.

Today, a walk through the main hallway past upgraded classrooms is quite a different experience with its updated wall sconces casting their inviting glow on the freshly painted pastel. The underground hallway leading to new, state-of-the-art practice rooms is now a burst of color, a feast for the eyes. What a complete contrast these visual changes are not only to the past but to what we have come to expect. You might believe you were in an Art rather than a Music Department.

No more “hissing and clanging radiators,” reported Professor Shreffler. Equipped with a modernized heating and cooling system, both the Music Building and  John Knowles Paine Concert Hall are finally quiet — one can still hear sirens coming from the nearby Cambridge fire house, but now only faintly.

Expressing appreciation to the many people involved in the renovation, Shreffler also reminded us of how the times have changed since Paine’s days and the creation of the Music Building. She had us thinking about the frieze in the John Knowles Paine Concert Hall with its chronological “misplacements” and “omissions” of composers’ names.  As in Boston’s Symphony Hall, the name of Beethoven also appears as the “center of history” in Harvard’s Paine Concert Hall. “Why Tartini, and not Vivaldi?” Shreffler asked. Her answer: the former was more popular when the frieze was conceived. Also at that time, history meant no medieval music, no women in music, neither being the “powerful vectors” they are nowadays.

Harvard Fellow Evan MacCarthy’s slides and stories steered us to Harvard’s production of Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles and the “modern” music that John Knowles Paine had composed for the ancient Greek play; the yeas and nays caused America’s first most recognized composer considerable anxiety. Much of the same kind of faculty opposition was voiced at the time by a well-known historian, a Professor Francis Parkman, who would proclaim: “Musica delenda est” (Music must be destroyed). What is new on the campus these days?

To help celebrate the new renovations, the Portland String Quartet performed Paine’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 5 composed at age 16. The 1855 manuscript score was made available to the Portland String Quartet by Houghton Library and was premiered by the quartet in 2011. The young Paine’s craft drew upon the Classical-Era’s menu, but without much expression and very few modulations — nothing daring — strange for a 16-year-old.  Also on the program was Quartet No. 1 by Harvard composer and former Music Department chair, Walter Piston. Connection: Paine, Piston, and the Portland Quartet are all Down Easterners. Listening tells us that Paine was very European, Piston more American, the former a Classicist, the latter a Neo-Classicist. The third movement of the Piston was the best thing on the program, as written and as played

Bravos go to PSQ for its dedication to American music, especially that coming out of Maine. Its performance renewed the great soul of craftsmanship visible in Piston’s early work, its display of commitment to historical chronicles with Paine’s adolescent quartet (which went on for 37 minutes).

Paine Concert Hall itself, though, raises serious acoustical concerns. For more information on this, see David Griesinger’s recent review “Chiara in Paine.”  As an aside I note that the backstage curtains were deployed for this concert as suggested by Griesinger..

My own memories of Paine Hall are many. I will never forget John Adams conducting his student chamber composition (possibly his first) on the stage, his rhythmic life of animation and vitality we have come to know already ever so present. Paine Hall is where we witnessed farewells to another fellow student, the late Ivan Tcherepnin; one of his students recalled evenings his class spent together on the roof looking at the stars. The three of us — Adams, Tcherepnin, and I — were composition students of Leon Kirchner in the 1960s. One Monday afternoon, upon discovering that none of the class had anything to show, Kirchner pondered whether we needed a piano in the room — or a couch.

Harvard’s band and jazz leader, Thomas Everett, tells of the time when the Harvard Wind Ensemble along with then-Principal Trumpet of the BSO Armando Ghitalla arrived at Paine Hall to present their concert, only to find the place closed up tight. Harvard had shut down — when does it ever, even when there’s a New England snowstorm? Everett recalls the breakdown in communication as much of a surprise as was the University’s closing.

Music is alive and well at Harvard. Thank goodness Parkman’s philosophy did not prevail.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


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