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Biography Arthur Farwell (1872-1952)

Image: Arthur Farwell
Arthur Farwell, [date unknown]. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Although Arthur Farwell did not intend to pursue a professional career in music, he became one of America's most influential composers, with over 100 compositions to his name. He is best known for his works based on Native American themes; however, he also used cowboy tunes, African-American spirituals, and Spanish-Californian melodies as the basis of his compositions. Initially, his musical style reflected a European, specifically German, tradition, but throughout his career, Farwell gradually assumed a more personal style, laden with adventurous harmonies. Because of his contributions to the musical mainstream, as well as his musical innovations and experimentations, he is often compared to Charles Ives.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on April 23, 1872, Farwell was the youngest son of George and Sara Farwell. Although he took violin lessons during his youth, Farwell did not immediately dedicate himself to music, and was instead fascinated by a variety of subjects, including astrology, numerology, and photography. His interest in electrical engineering led him to complete a Bachelor of Science degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1893. Yet several experiences during his university years convinced him that he was destined to become a professional musician.

Upon graduation, Farwell moved to Boston to study music under George Whitefield Chadwick and Homer Norris. He also wanted to take composition lessons from Edward MacDowell but the fees were too high for the young Farwell; nevertheless, MacDowell often encouraged the lad. In 1897, Farwell traveled to Europe to study with Engelbert Humperdinck and Hans Pfitzner. A year later, Farwell found himself in Paris, studying counterpoint under Alexandre Guilmant. After two years of musical training in Europe, Farwell traveled home to the United States in the spring of 1899.

Once in America, Farwell began his musical career by lecturing at Cornell University from 1899 to1901. It was during these lectures that Farwell introduced his sketches based on the American Indian melodies he had found in Alice Fletcher's compilation Indian Story and Song from North America (1900). Due to the interest generated by these sketches, as well as to his desire to be free of academic demands, Farwell left Cornell to initiate a crusade against German-dominated music in America. After settling in Newton Center, Massachusetts, Farwell traveled to New York City in search of a publisher for his American Indian Melodies, but was unsuccessful. As a result, he founded the Wa-Wan Press (1901-1912), a publishing firm dedicated to the dissemination of contemporary American music.

Farwell chose the name Wa-Wan, meaning "to sing to someone," for the press in honor of an important ceremony of the Omaha Indians which upheld peace, fellowship, and song. For the Press's motto, Farwell selected a phrase from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, "I Hear America Singing." With his father, George Farwell, as his only assistant, Farwell launched the first issue of the Wa-Wan Press in 1901; the volume contained two works by Edgar Stillman Kelley, as well as Farwell's own American Indian Melodies. For over a decade Farwell provided written introductions and commentaries, as well as illustrations for the sheet music covers, for the Press. The Press issued works by thirty-seven composers, nine of whom were women, including Gena Branscombe. The publication ceased in 1912, after music publisher G. Schirmer, who had acquired the enterprise from Farwell, abandoned the project. As a companion to his Wa-Wan Press, Farwell also founded the National Wa-Wan Society in March 1907, for the "advancement of the work of American composers, and the interests of the musical life of the American people." Later reorganized as the American Music Society, the group established centers for American music in cities across the U.S.

In addition to his involvement with the Wa-Wan Press and Society, Farwell served as the chief music critic for Musical America in New York from 1909 to 1914. He was appointed Supervisor of Municipal Concerts in New York by Mayor William J. Gaynor in 1910 and composed music for community pageants--enormous outdoor events that he felt could evolve into a new American art form, comparable in power to Richard Wagner's music dramas. In 1916 he co-founded the New York Community Chorus (the first community chorus in the country), effectively coining the term. Over the course of the next ten years, Farwell's career shifted to the West coast, and he organized community choruses wherever he went: first at the University of California-Berkeley, while chairing the music department; then in Santa Barbara, where he was instrumental in forming the Santa Barbara School for the Arts; and finally in Pasadena, while writing music for the Pilgrimage Play, a pageant based on the life of Christ. The U.S. Army hired Farwell during World War I to serve as the Army's first consultant on group singing.

In 1916, Farwell met Gertrude Everts Brice, an aspiring actress twenty years his junior, whom he married on 5 June 1917.

In 1927, Farwell was appointed head of the theory/composition department at Michigan State Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), where he continued to compose amidst a busy teaching schedule. In the late 1930s and 40s, John Finley Williamson commissioned six arrangements of Farwell's early Native American piano pieces for the Westminster Choir. These eight-part a cappella works are noteworthy for their use of Indian "vocables" (words without meaning) as well as for Farwell's experimentation with extended vocal techniques.

Farwell retired from teaching in 1939 and moved back to New York City. During his final decades he wrote a philosophical work titled Intuition in the World-Making, which discusses intuition's role in the creative process, incorporating drawings and analyses of his artistic visions. Though he was a prolific and important composer, Farwell is remembered primarily as a critic, publisher, and champion of American music. He died in New York City in 1952 after a short illness.

Further Reading

Culbertson, Evelyn Davis. He Heard America Singing: Arthur Farwell, Composer and Crusading Music Educator. Composers of North America, no. 9. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1992.

Lawrence, Vera Brodsky. The Wa-Wan Press, 1901-1911. New York: Arno Press, 1970.

Waters, Edward N. "The Wa-Wan Press: An Adventure in Musical Idealism." In A Birthday Offering to C[arl] E[ngel], comp. and ed. Gustave Reese, 214-33. New York: G. Schirmer, 1943.