As we go about our work as American choral directors, and as we ponder our planning for the future, it is also helpful to reflect on where we have come from.
By mid-19th century, the United States had moved from its English heritage when it came to music making, to almost becoming a German province. Germans did not merely promulgate their tastes and melodic idiom to Americans; more significantly as Sherer states in A History of American Classical Music, “they brought a particular attitude toward music as an art, a devotion to it as a serious, infinitely valuable pursuit, one more akin to religion than to amusement, with a profound reverence for music’s saints and heroes.” This attitude ultimately led to the US embrace of a culture of amateur music making it would call its own.
German immigrants to the United States made us stop speaking English and start speaking German, musically, that is. Americans stopped speaking of “minims”, “crochets” and “quavers”, and adopted the German measurements of “half notes”, “quarter notes”, and “eighth notes.” German piano teachers were able to establish the universal practice of numbering the fingers 12345, with 1 signifying the thumb, replacing the English numbering system. And, the German pedigreed Steinweg (Steinway), replaced the English Chickering as the piano of choice in American concert halls.
This migration also took place in the area of choral music composition, education and performance.
On December 6, 1873, a Musician’s Protective Union was formed in Memphis, TN. This union predated the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Musicians by decades, making it the oldest musician’s organization in the USA, and the nation’s oldest existing labor organization. The names on that original charter were all German immigrants.
A few years later, in the charter of the Memphis American Federation of Musicians Union, we see framed portraits of Beethoven, Wagner, and the names Mozart, Mendelssohn, Haydn and Schubert. However, at the bottom right of the charter is the sheet music to The Star-Spangled Banner, the United States shield of stars and stripes, a globe rotated to the side of North and South America, and then at the end of those framed portraits of Austrian and German luminaries, the name Dudley Buck.
During the 1880s, Dudley Buck was America’s chief choral composer. His notable compositions included the Festival Te Deum (Op. 63, No. 1), The Nun of Nidaros (1879), King Olaf’s Christmas (1881), Paul Revere’s Ride (1898) and the large-scale Scenes from The Golden Legend (for Cincinnati, 1880) and The Voyage of Columbus (1885). It is also significant of his standing at the time that his The Light of Asia (1885) was premiered in London, sponsored and published by England’s leading choral publisher, Novello & Co.
Dudley Buck (1839-1909) was from Hartford, CT, and similar to most of his trained contemporaries, he received his musical instruction in Leipzig and Paris. He returned to the US and became a well-known organist in Chicago, Boston, and Brooklyn. After relocating from Chicago to Boston, Buck began to write large-scale works for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, such as the Mendelssohnian Forty-Sixth Psalm (1872) and the secular cantata The Legend of Don Munio (taken from Washington Irving’s Tales from the Alhambra).
In the late 19th century, the United States doted on choral music for several reasons. At a time when many industrial towns offered few pastimes for its working-class residents, the founding of amateur choruses provided many working class men and women an opportunity for respectable social interaction combined with the educational aspect of learning and performing music. The establishment of the Cincinnati May Festival sparked a wave of other choral festivals around the country, which in turn created a demand for new choral repertoire. Even in the many towns lacking a full orchestra, choral works could usually be performed with organ. Therefore, most US composers hoping to earn income and secure a reputation wrote choral music.
And who sang this music?—amateur choirs. Choirs formed by individuals who love to sing, and who find great satisfaction by singing in community.
And now, for just a little over a century, choral music performance has been and remains the choice for how a great number of singers choose to spend their serious discretionary time. This happens throughout the United States and the world, and what we do, as professional directors, is provide professional discipline to that activity. We present a frame to surround the art that groups of singers are creating under professional discipline and leadership.
The American Choral Directors Association exists to inspire and assist with the discipline (composition, education, and advocacy) and presentational frame (performance) needed for the serious pursuit of the choral art.