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Reevaluating Composer You’ve Hardly Heard Of


Quick, can you name two composers born in Somerville, Mass? Pat yourself on the back if, in addition to Alan Hovhaness, you identified Henry Hadley (1871-1937), one of that extraordinary generation of American composers born in the 1870s (e.g. Converse, D. G. Mason, Ives, Ruggles, Carpenter, Coleridge-Taylor, Mabel Daniels, Arthur Farwell, Rubin Goldmark, E. B. Hill, Arthur Nevin, Ernest Schelling, Louis Coerne, W. C. Handy, Arne Oldberg, and the proverbial Manny Moore). And, as with virtually all of these, you probably have never heard of Hadley. To set these matters aright, at least in Hadley’s case, historian, lawyer and musicologist Daniel Breen presented a lecture (via Zoom, naturally) under the ægis of the Boston Athenæum on Tuesday.

Plainly an enthusiast for his subject, Breen recounted that Hadley came from a musical family of some local renown, being the son and grandson of music directors of the Somerville school system. By way of a tiny acknowledgment, a plaque commemorates composer Hadley in Somerville’s Symphony Park. Would that there had been even that in some of the other locations in which he made his mark, which was a large one in his lifetime, though obviously not an indelible one. Hadley began music studies at home, but eventually turned to George Chadwick (the two formed a friendship that lasted until Chadwick’s death in 1931, and the two were even neighbors in West Chop on Martha’s Vineyard in the summers). After his Chadwick period, Hadley hied himself to Eusebius Mandyczewski’s studio in Vienna, where he could also soak up the musical culture. On a second trip to Europe a few years later, he sought out Ludwig Thuille, as a teacher, probably on the recommendation of Richard Strauss, whom he also met on that journey.

Between the two trips Hadley gained his first professional experience teaching at St. Paul’s School in Garden City, NY and as organist at All Souls Church in Manhattan. Even more importantly, he made important professional contacts such as Victor Herbert, who arranged for early performances of Hadley’s music.

Breen made the point that Chadwick had focused on the need for an American composer to master the harmonic and architectural contributions of the great Central European tradition, and treated any distinctly American resonance as, at best, secondary (this is perhaps doing Chadwick a disservice, as he was one of the composers of his era who did give those traditions a distinctly American spin, with his penchant for folky Anglo-Celtic pentatonic tunes and drily droll Yankee wit). At any rate, Hadley seldom ventured very far out of the “international” mainstream (one could of course say the same for all those dodecaphonists of the post-World War II era), though his output reflected the richness of Straussian orchestration and chromaticism, of which Thuille was a particular advocate. Indeed, Hadley became one of America’s champions of the tone poem format, penning several quite worthy of modern-day attention, such as The Culprit Fay (1909) and The Ocean (1921).

Hadley worked prominently as a conductor. Upon returning from his second European sojourn, he took the position of music director of the Seattle Symphony, and after that became the founding music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Breen makes much of Hadley’s status as the first American to conduct a “major city symphony orchestra,” though parsing that phrase requires a bit of care. One might say that San Francisco was a major city in 1910, but its orchestra certainly wasn’t, though Hadley did much to bring it up to professional snuff (even importing his brother Arthur, who played cello with the Boston Symphony). And, technically speaking, although Hadley was probably the first American regular conductor of a big-city orchestra, in 1847 Brooklyn-born George Frederick Bristow conducted his own music with the New York Philharmonic (Bristow was later passed over for the music director job). Not only was Hadley the first American SFSO conductor, but also, it is telling, as Breen explained, that not until Michael Tilson Thomas was there a second. This testifies both to the willingness of the orchestra’s trustees to take risks in 1910 and to their timidity in all the time in between. Hadley consistently sought to perform American music, even works that did not hew to his own stylistic preferences; he also pioneered in the use of lighting and other dramatic performance enhancements.

After management forced him out of his San Francisco position over complaints that the SFSO hadn’t met BSO standards (though it was infinitely better than the dance band it had been at its inception), Hadley returned East and eventually became an assistant conductor with the NY Phil, with whom he led many touring performances in the US and overseas, as well as in special performances such as the one mentioned below. It was from his association with the Philharmonic that he embarked, in the 1930s, on efforts to create a summer music festival in western Massachusetts (you know which).

Cabinet card Image of a young Hadley by Pessford of New York. This was used by Ditson in their 1905 catalog of composers, but may have been taken earlier. (Hadley would have been thirty years old in 1901)

Breen also pointed out one of Hadley’s unheralded achievements: his early association with film music. Though Hadley was hardly the first to write a score for a then-otherwise-silent movie (Saint-Saëns earned that distinction in 1908), he did write the first synchronized feature score for the Vitaphone sound-on-disc projection system. He actually did two: an arrangement of pre-existing classical numbers for the 1926 John Barrymore pre-talkie Don Juan [trailer HERE], and a year later an original score, for Barrymore’s When a Man Loves (on Manon Lescaut). In both of these, he led the NY Phil. He also led the orchestra in radio performances—one of the first to do so.

Throughout his lecture, Breen tossed out anecdotes and assorted fun facts, such as that Azora, the third of Hadley’s five operas (1914), was, at its premiere in 1917, the first American opera to be conducted by an American (himself) in an American house (Chicago Lyric) with an all-American cast. Another of his operas, Cleopatra’s Night (1920) ran at the Met, and even repeated.

By the time of Hadley’s death in 1937 he had been, along with the others of his generation and earlier, pushed aside by the sharp-elbowed exponents of modernism. As if to advertise the point, the recording of Hadley’s second quartet linked below, recorded just 18 years after its composition, is performed by “The Society for Forgotten Music Quartet.” In our times, with a greater appreciation of stylistic diversity and a wariness of the notion of teleological historical inevitability, we can, if properly guided, rediscover much of the musical past that has faded—or been erased—from consideration. It’s refreshing and encouraging to find exponents like Breen who are keen to shed fresh light on neglected musical masters of the past; it’s to be hoped that there will be more of its type.

While Breen did not have time to play musical examples for Hadley, a search of YouTube reveals some interesting items for those with the curiosity to check them out:

In Bohemia overture (1902); The Culprit Fay, tone poem (1909); Symphony #4 (North, East, South, West)(1910)

Piano Quintet in A minor (1920); The Ocean, tone poem (1921); String Quartet No. 2 (1932) (with a bit more modernity to it)

Scherzo Diabolique (1934), a mordant and hilarious recounting of a terrifying auto trip in the Berkshires at the breakneck speed of 50 mph.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.


9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I’m very glad to see Henry Hadley well remembered. But don’t forget Henry F. Gilbert (1868-1928), Somerville native, a New England Romantic with a modern touch, whose Dance in the Place Congo, composed 1906, still sounds satisfyingly provocative after more than a century. I’m listening right now to his very agreeable Suite for chamber orchestra (1907) (Albany TROY033-2; the American Music Ensemble Vienna; Hobart Earle, conductor).

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — November 15, 2020 at 11:52 am

  2. Part of a “Vitaphone Prelude” of that 1926 Don Juan was Henry Hadley conducting the New York Philharmonic in Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture. As such, it is the first sound on film of a symphony orchestra. One can hear the audio on YouTube, the film itself can be found on the DVD release of Don Juan.
    And yes, he was the conductor at the Berkshire Symphonic Festival in 1934 and 1935 at the invitation of Miss Gertrude Robinson Smith. It was when Hadley’s cancer became terminal that Smith extended an invitation for the 1936 Berkshire Festival to one Serge Koussevitzky and his Boston Symphony Orchestra.

    Comment by Brian Bell — November 15, 2020 at 2:20 pm

  3. Never having heard of Hadley and Gilbert, I gave “In Bohemia” a try and soon wished I hadn’t. Though I made it to the end, it was a surprise to find myself praying that it would soon be over as I’m an atheist.

    Gilbert’s “Pirate Song” (the first to pop up on YouTube) on the other hand, is is “a keeper.” Quirky, funny as a paragraph of S. J. Perelman, and strangely forward looking.

    Thank you, Prof. DeVoto, for mentioning this composer.

    Time to start a Gilbert Society.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 15, 2020 at 3:49 pm

  4. Here is a modern performance of Hadley’s “In Bohemia” and I hope that Mr. Brodie will give it an audition. That performance linked above is not Szell and Cleveland and frankly doesn’t give the work a fair representation. It is a rousing work with a meltingly lovely second theme, well worth the time to hear. Hadley’s greatest works still await modern performances and recordings. However, from what we have it is easy to see that he is among America’s greats.

    Comment by JOHN MCLAUGHLIN WILLIAMS — November 16, 2020 at 9:07 pm

  5. Brilliant. Very well written, witty, exuding knowledge of music with ease. Already, already: so Amy HaHa Beach was born three years too early to include in your list? And how delicious that another Pundit, DeVoto, pointed out a composer you missed in the paean to Somerville?
    One more comment: this article and ensuing comments points out just how much fun, stimulating and informative has BMint proven to be.

    Comment by norton — November 17, 2020 at 10:36 am

  6. That’s “alright, already”…

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — November 17, 2020 at 10:38 am

  7. Thank you, Maestro Williams, for your gracious and constructive response to my intemperate and even bigoted post. oI just finished listening to what you recommended. Although it didn’t turn me into a convert to Hadleyism, it did put me on the path. Your fine performance also reminds me that one should think at least twice before publicly popping one’s cork on this distinguished site.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — November 17, 2020 at 11:02 am

  8. Kudos to Daniel Breen and Vance Koven for helping to keep Hadley’s legacy alive. For those who might be interested, there are several interesting Hadley efforts underway at this time:
    -The sesquicentennial of Hadley’s birth will take place late next year (Dec. 20, 2021). A non-profit, HenryHadley150 has been formed. A number of activities are already underway in research and planning; it was hoped that the 150th would kick off a year of performance, especially of less-heard compositions. His extensive choral work is especially in need of exposure. Although the current situation has made research difficult and performance planning nearly impossible, we are working on broadcast and publication. A pre-publication distribution of the great 1960 John Canfield biography, never openly published (a doctoral thesis) is planned soon at low or no cost, to aid those preparing their own activities. Editing is nearly complete. For details on this, the sesquicentennial goals and celebration in general, please visit Lots of help is needed and all are encouraged to participate.
    -Interested persons may also enjoy visiting the Henry Hadley Facebook pages, and also, both of which contain a wonderful variety of graphical material relating a very colorful figure in American musical life.

    Comment by Daniel Kerlee — November 17, 2020 at 5:57 pm

  9. Thanks Brian for providing more detail on Hadley’s landmark symphonic Tannhauser video. Additionally, it was actually the very first synchronized (recorded playback) music video that most moviegoers had ever seen, coming right after MPAA director William Hays’ spoken remarks; the first in a set of shorts before the Don Juan feature. Incidentally I’ve tried to straighten out Hadley’s involvement with the second (and wonderful) Vitaphone synchronized feature, The Better ‘Ole. (I’ve written about it on but anyone’s additional information or thoughts would be much appreciated).
    Re the Berkshire/Tanglewood Festival origins: just to clarify perhaps a bit, at least two distinct and unrelated sources describe the Berkshire/Tanglewood as originating with Hadley. 1) 1955’s “Music Under the Moon, a history of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival Inc.”, John Mahanna, published by the Berkshire Symphonic Music Festival Inc. describes Hadley as bringing the idea to Miss Gertrude Robinson Smith.
    2) In Dr. John Canfield’s unpublished (except through thesis service) 1960 biography, “Henry Kimball Hadley, His Life and Works”, Canfield reports Mrs. Hadley’s recollections from his direct interviews, where she recounts Hadley’s story of finding the Hanna farm, contacting Miss Smith, etc. (The Hadley Sesquicentennial plans to make a preliminary version of this 180+-page thesis available; I’m happy to send excerpts of either these along).
    Small chamber music festivals (at least) had taken place in the Berkshires before – more information on these would be most welcome – and many persons over the years, starting with Miss Robinson and the board that she formed, have done tremendous amounts of work to bring the festival to life and make it what it is today. Many, including Serge Koussevitzky whose name is still so associated with Tanglewood today, added greatly to its musical stature. Yet Hadley, with deep societal and musical roots in Massachusetts and New England going back to Colonial times, surely deserves commemoration in the year of his Sesquicentennial.

    Comment by DANIEL KERLEE — November 30, 2020 at 3:38 pm

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