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Biography Arthur Foote (1853-1937)

Arthur Foote, 1904.
Arthur Foote, 1904. From Louis C. Elsen, The History of American Music. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1904, p. 212, fig. 54. Music Division. Library of Congress. Call number: ML200.E46

Arthur Foote was born in 1853 in Salem, Massachusetts, and grew up in Boston. After beginning his music education at age twelve, he studied harmony at the New England Conservatory before entering Harvard College in 1870. There he studied counterpoint and fugue with John Knowles Paine. He also led the Harvard Glee Club (1872-74), where he gained practical experience in working with voices. One year after graduating, Foote returned to Harvard to earn a Master of Arts degree in music, the first granted by an American university.

While working on his master's degree, Foote studied organ with B. J. Lang, one of the leading musical figures in Boston and the city's foremost choral conductor. Lang led the Apollo Club and Cecilia Society in Boston premieres of new works by Berlioz, Wagner, and others. He also championed choral works by American composers and was instrumental in convincing Foote to pursue a musical career. In 1876, Foote accepted the post of organist at the Church of the Disciples. Two years later he moved to the First Unitarian Church, where he served as organist for more than thirty years. During his tenure there, he edited two Unitarian hymnals in 1890 and 1896. He was one of the founders of the American Guild of Organists in 1896 and served as national president from 1909 to 1912.

During his lifetime, his compositions in the area of chamber music brought him most acclaim, including performances at the World Exposition of 1893. Several of his orchestral compositions were premiered by the Boston Symphony. The Suite in E Major, op. 63, was championed by Serge Koussevitzky and achieved great popularity. His Four Character Pieces after the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, op. 48, received praise for its colorful orchestration.

Foote's list of vocal compositions includes one hundred songs, fifty-two part-songs, and thirty-five anthems. He wrote three choral-orchestral works on texts of H. W. Longfellow: The Farewell of Hiawatha (1885), The Wreck of the Hesperus (1888), and The Skeleton in Armor (1891). After the first performance of The Farewell of Hiawatha, led by Foote's mentor B. J. Lang, the composer sent the score to composer/conductor Dudley Buck in hopes of gaining a performance by Buck's groups in Brooklyn. Buck answered that he was very interested in programming American works, but he offered one slight criticism: "Don't write too high continuously for American tenors. It is not the compass per se, — that we have, but the sustaining of reiterated high tones as compared with German voices."[1] In his anthem writing, on the other hand, Foote intentionally tried to write pieces that were accessible to the congregation and easy for the singers. He was perplexed, therefore, that his most popular anthem, Still, Still with Thee, was one of his most difficult.

Apart from his notoriety as a composer, Foote was highly regarded as a teacher and writer. He served as a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1911, and taught piano at the New England Conservatory between 1921 and 1937. He co-authored a theory text with Walter R. Spalding, Modern Harmony in Its Theory and Practice (1905, reprinted in 1969 and 1978). He was widely honored during his lifetime by the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1898), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1913), and by honorary doctorates from Trinity College and Dartmouth College. He earned an important place in the history of early-twentieth-century American music as a member of the Second New England School of composers (or the Boston Six), which included G. W. Chadwick, Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell, J. K. Paine, and Horatio Parker. Foote died in Boston in 1937.


  1. Nicholas E. Tawa, Arthur Foote: A Musician in the Frame of Time and Place (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997), p. 150. [back to article]