The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Converse, Frederick Shepherd

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography  (1918) 
James E. Homans, editor
Converse, Frederick Shepherd

CONVERSE, Frederick Shepherd, composer, b. at Newton, Mass., 5 Jan., 1871, is the son of Edmund Winchester and Charlotte Augusta (Shepherd) Converse. His father was a successful merchant, and president of the National Tube Works and the Conanicut Mills. The family is descended from Deacon Edward Converse, who came to America from Northumberland County, England, and landed at Charleston, Mass., in 1630, subsequently settling in Woburn, Mass., where he became a selectman and a commissioner from the church to settle the business of the town. The subject of this sketch received his education at Harvard College, where he came under the influence of the well-known composer, Prof. John K. Paine. He had already received instruction in piano playing and now the study of musical theory became a most important part of his college course. Upon his graduation in 1893, a violin sonata from his pen (op. 1) was performed, winning him highest honors in music. This determined his future career, and after six months of business life, for which his father had intended him, he returned to the study of his art, Carl Baermann being his teacher in piano, and George W. Chadwick in composition. He then spent two years at the Royal Academy of Music in Munich, where he studied with Joseph Rheinberger, completing the course in 1898. His symphony in D-minor had its first performance on the occasion of his graduation. During 1899-1902 Mr. Converse taught harmony at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He then joined the faculty of Harvard University as instructor in music, and was appointed assistant professor in 1905. Two years later he resigned and has since devoted himself exclusively to composition. Before his return from Europe he had produced a suite for piano (op. 2); a string quartette (op. 3); two sets of waltzes for piano, four hands (op. 4-5); and “Youth,” a concert overture for orchestra (op. 6). In all of these he adhered to classical forms, foreshadowing his future tendencies only in the originality of the material. A distinct departure from these early works came with his “Festival of Pan” (op. 9), a romance for orchestra, which the Boston Symphony Orchestra brought out in 1899. His thorough technique, acquired in years of rigorous study and formal composition, here bears brilliant fruit, while the manner of his treatment, his use of harmonic effects, and his brilliant and suggestive orchestral coloring proclaim him one of the modern school of symbolists, whose tone poems supersede the symphonies of the classic and romantic schools. “The Festival of Pan” was followed by “Endymion's Narrative” (op. 10) which, like its predecessor, illustrates a phase of Keats' poem. Two tone poems, “Night” and “Day” (op. 11), suggested by verses of Walt Whitman, came next, and then a setting of Keats' “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” for baritone and orchestra (op. 12). After two groups of songs and a string quartette (op. 18) published in 1904, he produced “The Mystic Trumpeter,” a fantasy for orchestra, after Whitman, the most ambitious of his symphonic works. It was first played by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra in 1905, and subsequently by a number of other leading organizations, meeting with unequivocal praise from critics and public. The music is remarkably successful in following the symbolic essence of the poem, subtly reproducing its atmosphere, eloquently translating its emotions and scenes by the use of skillfully varied motives. This may be said in a measure of the preceding compositions of this order, though the latter work shows a great advance in the technique of construction and greater freedom of treatment, and a more brilliant handling of the resources of the orchestra. Mr. Converse next applied his genius to serious opera. Whatever the ultimate judgment of his achievements, which must rest with posterity, his name will stand as one of the pioneers in this field, for though previous works of this class had been produced in America, none have aroused the serious consideration of the musical world to which American music now aspires. His first operatic work, “The Pipe of Desire” (op. 23), set to the text of George Edward Barton, had its initial presentation at Jordan Hall, Boston, 31 Jan., 1906. It was at once apparent that composer and librettist had produced a work of genuine merit. The Boston “Transcript” enthusiastically hailed it as “real opera,” and remarked: “Mr. Converse's music is almost intoxicating.” Unlike other American composers he is said to have the “feeling, instinct, and imagination” for the theater. “There are twenty tokens of it throughout the opera — in his power of dramatic climax, in his ability to make the vivid, emphasizing, illuminating phrase in voice or orchestra at the poignant moment, in the steady variety of treatment, in the weaving of voices, instruments, speech, and action into a significant, moving, and musically beautiful whole; in his skill to summon and maintain communicating atmosphere and mood. He feels his characters and their emotions intimately. He moves in the atmosphere in which they move. Then he translates all these things into his music and straightway his listeners grasp and feel them. To do this is the first concern of opera as we understand it nowadays. Earlier, perhaps, than we had reason to expect, there is an American composer with an unmistakable aptitude for it.” On 18 March, 1910, the opera was presented at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, and, after several repetitions, became a part of the repertoire of the Boston Opera House, where it was produced 6 Jan., 1911. On both occasions the first impression with regard to the music was confirmed. The New York “Tribune” said: “There is no doubt but that it is a strong step forward in the movement toward better things and better conditions in American music,” and, according to Louis C. Elson in the Boston “Advertiser,” “the delicacy, the fitness of every touch of tone coloring, remind one of the best side of Debussy, a Debussy without eccentricities.” “The Pipe of Desire” is in one act and has a legendary subject, of Celtic origin. It is based upon the mingling of the old Pagan nature worship and the incoming Christian morality. The story rests upon the principle that man may force the way of his desires against the divine order but that he pays the penalty. The work is an avowed fantasy and its authors purposely avoided a realistic subject, believing that there is a place for poetry and idealism as well as for crude realism upon the operatic stage. This point of view seems to have been ignored by some critics who have taken exception to the book on account of its subject as well as the verse. In that respect Mr. Converse's second opera, “The Sacrifice,” of which he himself wrote the book, is in striking contrast with the first. The scene is laid in California at the time of the Mexican War, and the characters, some of whom are Americans, enact a modern tragedy. It is in three acts, full of local color and action, the third in particular presenting strong dramatic climaxes, powerfully sustained by the music. To quote the Boston “Transcript” after the first performance at the Boston Opera House (4 March, 1911): “He has conceived and fashioned a drama that has the operatic virtues of simplicity, large lines, concern with elemental passions and relations, and opportunities for expansion.” The music, like that of the former work, is “insistently sonorous and declamatory, unless he turns aside deliberately for a lighter contrasting moment.” It is replete with charming melodies, and full of powerful contrasts intensified by prismatic changes of orchestral coloring. His manner of composition is in a general way in accordance with that of the Wagnerian music drama. “He devises a relatively small number of ‘motives’ representative of his personages, their emotions and relations, or the more general aspects of his drama. He repeats and transforms these motives at significant moments; and he intertwines and contrasts them in his orchestral voices. At the same time, he makes much of his music out of wholly independent but appropriate melodic ideas, which melodies are oftener orchestral than vocal. He conceives his orchestra, not as a minute mirror of every reflection of the text, but as a stream that shall flow with the drama, taking course, speed, contour, substance, and color from it. Above this orchestral stream, now rising, from it, now subsiding into it, run the voices of the personages, in sustained arioso, set tune or melodious declamation.” Mr. Converse has been especially commended for his choral writing. As further evidence of this ability should be mentioned his “Laudate Domine,” motet for male chorus, organ, and brasses (op. 22); “Job,” an oratorio (op. 24); and a “Serenade” for male chorus, soprano solo, and small orchestra (op. 25). These as well as “Hagar in der Wüste,” dramatic narative for contralto and orchestra, and three songs for medium voice (op. 28) preceded the second (ipora, since which he has published a “Melody” for violin and piano (op. 29). He also wrote an overture, entr'actes and incidental music to Percy MacKaye's “Jeanne d'Arc” (op. 25), which was produced by Miss Julia Marlowe in 1906, and several minor compositions for the piano. Both by virtue of what he has achieved and the promise which his genius and brilliant ability hold out for the future, Mr. Converse is a significant figure in the history of American music. While on the one hand he has not allied himself with those who would base an American school on the musical bequests of certain native elements which are alien to our essentially European culture, he has kept aloof from the tradition of the old world sufficiently to render his work distinctive in color as well as original in substance. He believes, in his own words, “that we shall be able to build up a school of musical composition second to none and of which Americans can well be proud.” Mr. Converse is a trustee of the New England Conservatory of Music; a member of the National Society of Arts and Letters, the Tavern, Union, St. Botolph, and Tennis and Racquet Clubs of Boston, the Harvard Club of New York, and the Norfolk Country Club of Dedham, Mass. He was active in organizing the Boston Opera Company in 1907-08, and is now its vice-president. He married, 6 June, 1894, Emma, daughter of Frederic Tudor, of Brookline, and has five daughters.


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