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Biographies Henry F. Gilbert (1868-1928)

Henry F. Gilbert, 1868-1928.
Henry F. Gilbert, 1868-1928. From Olin Downes, "An American Composer." The Musical Quarterly 4(January 1918): facing p. 23. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number: ML1.M725

Henry Franklin Belknap Gilbert was born in 1868 in Somerville, Massachusetts, to musical parents. He received early training on piano and violin, entering the New England Conservatory, where he studied violin with Emil Mollenhauer and composition with Edward MacDowell between 1886 and 1892. He worked as a free-lance violinist and in a variety of trades—printing, real estate, music publishing, writing, and lecturing. He worked for composer and publisher Arthur Farwell, who founded the Wa-Wan Press in 1901, which was dedicated to publishing American music. Farwell found a kindred spirit in Gilbert who was also interested in forging a distinctly American idiom in music. At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Gilbert was exposed to ragtime and world music. He began collecting Amerindian, African-American, and Celtic music. In lectures and writings, he advocated for the use of musical humor and popular idioms by classical composers. His published articles include "American Spirit," Wa-Wan Press Monthly (1907); "Folk Music in Art Music: a Discussion and a Theory," Musical Quarterly (1917); and "Humor in Music," Musical Quarterly (1926).

In 1905 he wrote Americanesque, which was a suite for orchestra based on minstrel show tunes. His first major success was Comedy Overture on Negro Themes (1910) for orchestra. He completed a work based on Creole music in 1908, but it was refused a public performance in Boston because of its hybrid style. Gilbert rewrote the work as a ballet, and The Dance in Place Congo received its first performance by the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1918. It became his most popular work. In 1927 it met with universal applause at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Frankfurt, Germany. Gilbert died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1928. Testimonials to Gilbert's unique niche in forging an American style are numerous. One of his contemporaries, composer John Alden Carpenter wrote a letter of condolence to Gilbert's wife, Helen: "I have always considered the contribution of your husband to American music unique and unparalleled by the work of any other American composer, in that he was first, it seems to me, to strike the indefinable and unmistakable American note in his work."[1] Arthur Farwell, Gilbert's colleague and another pioneer in creating a national music also wrote to Helen Gilbert: "What stands uppermost in my thought of him is what might be called his moral artistic sturdiness—a quality comparable to that of the New England Philosophers. He stood out to the end for his ideals. And they were good ideals. For I think Henry was heroic in standing by some spontaneous musical beauty. . . . His wagon was hitched to his own particular star, and he was true to it."[2]


  1. John Alden Carpenter, letter to Helen Gilbert, May 2, 1929. The Gilbert Papers, MSS 35, Irving S. Gilmore Library, Yale University (Box 36/132), cited in Sherill V. Martin, Henry F. Gilbert: A Bio-bibliography (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), p. 94. [back to article]
  2. Arthur Farwell, letter to Helen Gilbert, June 3, 1928. Ibid., (Box 36/135). [back to article]