Arthur Farwell is best known for his works based on Native American themes, but he also used cowboy tunes, African-American spirituals, and Spanish-Californian melodies as the basis of his compositions. He is remembered for trying to free American music of European influences, and as the founder in 1901 of the Wa-Wan Press, which issued the music of living American composers.
--Library of Congress Performing Arts Encyclopedia
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on April 23, 1872, Farwell studied violin as a boy, but it was not until he was an engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that he realized his vocation. Taking his degree in 1893, he studied for a time with Chadwick in Boston, but rebelled against his teacher's academic drift. Encouraged by MacDowell, he sailed for Germany, where he studied with Humperdinck, among others, before returning to the States, teaching briefly at Cornell University, and eventually settling in Newton Center near Boston. Inspired by Dvořák's approach to folk material, and impassioned by the belief that American classical music needed to incorporate native music, Farwell created in 1901 the Wa-Wan Press, which he named for an Omaha tribal ceremony affirming peace and friendship.
Published eight times annually for the first five years and then increased to monthly editions in 1906, Farwell published beautifully designed and engraved vocal and instrumental compositions supported by program notes and essays to advance the cause of this "new music." Among the composers he published (in addition to himself) were Arthur Shepherd, Edgar Stillman Kelley, William Schuyler, and Henry F. B. Gilbert--all of whom had rejected the classicism of the Chadwick-Parker School. In 1912 Farwell became chief music critic for the Boston area for Musical America, and he turned the plates for the Wa-Wan Press over to G. Schirmer on a royalty basis. Unfortunately, Schirmer soon abandoned the project, and one of the most significant and idealistic efforts in our cultural history--an attempt to encourage American voices by publishing and disseminating their songs and poetry--disappeared. It is much to their credit, therefore, that Arno Press and the New York Times, with Vera Brodsky Lawrence as editor, issued a complete five-volume reprint in 1970.
Farwell's own music was deeply inspired by the Indianist Movement of the late 19th century. Though his arrangements of tribal melodies (Three Indian Songs, op. 32, 1908) were colored by European harmonic practices, his later compositions departed boldly from the literal context of Native American music and responded, instead, to its spirit. This increasing sophistication is seen in his 1905 op. 21, Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas.
By the 1930's, Farwell's music had developed a strikingly original, even avant-garde quality that continued until his death in 1952, in New York City. A figure of controversy throughout his life, Farwell's artistic ideas--particularly his work in the Indianist Movement--still provoke discussion in a politically correct and largely myopic modern age that has difficulty understanding the contexts from which our artists come. Arthur Farwell's credo, with all its Whitmanesque resonance--that it is only by exalting the common inspirations of American life that we can become great musically--surely stands at the heart of the pioneering spirit which has shaped all American thought and art.
--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Photo: Arthur Farwell, [date unknown]. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.
- REC Music: Farwell songs
- Library of Congress: Arthur Farwell
- ArkivMusic: Farwell CDs
- Eastman School of Music: Farwell papers
- University of Rochester Research: Arthur Farwell search
- Edgar Lee Kirks' dissertation: Toward American Music: A Study of the Life and Music of Arthur George Farwell (PDF download available)
- The Hampsong Foundation: Arthur Farwell Song Texts and German Translations