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Farwell, Arthurlocked

  • Gilbert Chase
  • , revised by Neely Bruce

(b St Paul, April 23, 1872; d New York, Jan 20, 1952). American composer, critic, editor and proponent of community music. As a boy he took violin lessons but had no thought of devoting himself to music. He prepared for a career in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he graduated in 1893. Meanwhile the experience of hearing the Boston SO and the influence of Rudolph Gott, an eccentric musician, convinced him that music should be his career. He studied with Norris and Chadwick in Boston, and was encouraged by MacDowell. He then went to Germany for further study with Humperdinck and Pfitzner (1897–9); he also studied briefly with Guilmant in Paris. Returning to the USA he accepted a lectureship at Cornell University (1899–1901), but his ambition was to be free of academic obligations. His failure to find a publisher for his American Indian Melodies, and the knowledge that many of his colleagues were in a similar predicament, led to his founding of the Wa-Wan Press (1901–12) for the publication of music by contemporary American composers. Subscribers were offered two volumes of music (vocal and instrumental) each quarter. The press published the work of 37 composers in volumes beautifully designed and printed, often with introductions by Farwell. A related enterprise was the National Wa-Wan Society of America, founded in 1907 for ‘the advancement of the work of American composers, and the interests of the musical life of the American people’.

From 1909 to 1914 Farwell was chief critic for Musical America in New York, where he was also supervisor of municipal concerts. His interest in community music now became an important aspect of his work. He wrote music for pageants, masques and open-air performances with audience participation. After a period at the University of California, Berkeley (1918–19), he taught at Michigan State College from 1927 to 1939.

Farwell was an eclectic and prolific composer, with an extraordinary variety of musical interests. His music covers a very wide spectrum, from community choruses to tiny songs on poems by Emily Dickinson, from masques and pageants to polytonal studies for piano. But the diversity of his interests and his breadth of vision led him to some unprofitable explorations. His songs before 1900, for example, are virtually parlour music, and their occasional chromaticism and peculiar turns of melody seem contrived. Although he soon learnt that such music was not his forte, his concern with popular and traditional art and his desire to communicate with the average American remained with him throughout his life. He collected and arranged the music of Amerindians, Spanish-American communities of the Southwest, cowboys, black Americans and Anglo-American folksingers. Fascinated by certain tunes, he used them repeatedly in his work much as Ives did.

Farwell is perhaps best known as an arranger and an ‘Indianist’. His first arrangements – of Amerindian tunes, made between 1900 and 1904 – are simple and do not realize any of the radical implications of the material. Like others at the time, he harmonized the melodies as if they had come out of a European, specifically Germanic, tradition. As he matured, however, and as his sense of harmony became more adventurous, he produced strikingly original versions of such tunes. In 1905 he published a set entitled Folk Songs of the West and South; it opens with two spirituals, about which Farwell said: ‘the editor has, on principle, derived the harmony from a consideration of the dramatic or poetic content, and not from the harmony book’. This is an accurate assessment of his method. The Bird Song Dance which concludes the set is his first radical Amerindian setting. The text consists of nonsense syllables used by the Cahuilla tribe to imitate various birds; Farwell’s harmonization is full of whimsical touches and ends with an unresolved dissonance.

Other fine Amerindian arrangements are the set of piano pieces entitled Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas op.21 (1905) and, from the set From Mesa and Plain, the eerie Pawnee Horses (also 1905), the Three Indian Songs op.32 (1908) and the Four Indian Songs for unaccompanied chorus op.102 (1937). These pieces share the utmost delicacy of harmonic treatment: chromaticism, whole-tone chords, and other nondiatonic effects do not interfere with the essential simplicity of the material. Sometimes Farwell simplified his harmonic style almost to the point of minimalism, as in his choral setting of the Navajo War Dance op.102 no.1; in this and in Inketunga’s Thunder Song op.32 no.2 he experimented with unusual vocal techniques. He based his string quartet ‘The Hako’ (op.65, 1922) on Amerindian materials, and there is an orchestral Indian Suite op.110 (1944). Amerindians make a final appearance in Cartoon, or, Once Upon a Time Recently, ‘an Operatic Fantasy of Music in America’ (1948).

Farwell’s first large song, A Ruined Garden op.14 (1902), relies on completely different aesthetic principles from his early pieces based on Indian tunes. Despite an overlay of French harmony, the spirits of Wagner and Tchaikovsky hover over A Ruined Garden as they do over the later and even more ambitious song The Farewell op.33 (1910); perhaps the most successful of his works in the Wagnerian manner is the piano piece Flame Voiced Night op.45 no.2 (c1915), in which the writing is florid and original.

Farwell gradually abandoned late Romantic harmonic practice for a more idiosyncratic style, and by the 1930s was producing works of great harmonic originality. A turning point in this development was Vale of Enitharmon op.91 (1930) for piano, inspired by the mother of Urizen in the prophetic works of Blake. Although tonal in most sections, the work is chromatic in the extreme, and includes two monophonic passages, heavily pedalled to create chords which are virtually without a key centre. The middle section is as unpredictable as any music composed primarily of triads can be.

In 1940 Farwell began a series of polytonal piano studies that were intended to systematize his harmonic ideas; working from complicated charts, he projected 46 pieces, of which 23 were composed (as op.109, 1940–52). Although uneven in quality, all deserve attention, and the finest are among his most original and beautiful works. The abstract compositional process frequently results in surprisingly poetic music, and the piano writing is idiomatic and often brilliant. The polytonal studies clearly served as a harmonic source for Farwell’s last piano piece, the Piano Sonata op.113 (1949), which is probably his masterpiece. Based on a small collection of motifs that are subjected to the most tortuous manipulation, the sonata has a technical ruthlessness surprising in a composer known chiefly as an arranger of Amerindian melodies. The one-movement work lasts only 13 minutes; there is none of the sprawling quality of many of the earlier pieces. The harmonic idiom is unlike that of any other composer, and the sonata’s emotional intensity and dramatic impact are rare in American composers of Farwell’s generation.

As an orchestral composer Farwell seems to have been less successful. The enormous Rudolph Gott Symphony op.95 (1932–4) is full of interesting moments but seems diffuse and overlong. The earlier suite from The Gods of the Mountain (1917, orchestrated 1928) is, however, very effectively orchestrated, and Farwell was proud of his orchestration of the Symbolistic Study no.3 op.18, after Walt Whitman’s ‘Once I passed through a populous city’.

Farwell was a composer of unusual literary sensitivity. In addition to the Blake and Whitman works mentioned above and the Two Poems op.45 for piano (c1915), inspired by poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, he wrote community pageants and other stage works on texts by writers ranging from Shakespeare to personal friends. His 39 brief and enigmatic, but occasionally panoramic and even violent settings of Dickinson poems (1908–49) are among the finest American art songs. Farwell was a prolific writer himself, important particularly as a spokesman for a ‘national’ musical expression of America’s diversity. His most significant writings are the introductions and essays that he wrote for the Wa-Wan Press music editions and the Wa-Wan Press Monthly (all are included in the 1970 reprint edition), and Music in America (with W. Dermot Darby, 1915). In addition he published almost 100 articles in Musical America and elsewhere, most of them on contemporary composers and current musical issues and events, and A Letter to American Composers (1903).

Farwell also had an interest in the visual arts rare for a composer. He liked to draw, and illustrated himself his unpublished Intuition in the World-making (1933–48), in which he attempted to systematize the process of artistic inspiration on the basis of personal visions dating back to 1905. He designed covers for the sheet music published by the Wa-Wan Press, taking pride in their abstract design, which was deliberately different from the usual pictorial sheet-music covers of the time. The four prints which he hand-produced on his own lithographic press in East Lansing are beautiful and unusually well crafted.

Taken as a whole Farwell’s work seems of its time, and perhaps he was justified in referring to himself as a Romantic composer. He did not like many of the musical innovations of the first half of the 20th century, although he was considered a radical as a young man; in his opera Cartoon he satirized Stravinsky and Schoenberg. He did not think of himself as an experimental composer, yet in many ways he was one. Many details of his music, and the compositional preoccupations of his last and best work, show him pointing to the future in some surprising ways. He was the only major American composer of his time to attempt community music, anticipating by two generations the work of composers in the 1970s. He produced the first light-show in the USA, in Central Park in New York City in 1916. He used a number of extended vocal techniques (borrowed from Amerindians). He composed using charts. He wrote some technical tours de force of a most abstract kind, including the piano piece What’s in an Octave? op.84 (1930), which uses only the pitches between f and f′, is eight minutes long, and contains a four-voice fughetta. Farwell was the first American composer to write folksong arrangements that were original yet faithful to the spirit of their models. He experimented with harmonic vocabulary throughout his career. Above all, the cross-fertilization of music, literature and the visual arts that characterizes much of his work anticipates a whole school of composers influenced by Cage. Farwell was both within the mainstream and an exemplar of American musical experimentalism; in this he can be compared only with Ives.


(selective list)

for complete list see B. Farwell


The Death of Virginia, sym. poem, op.4, 1894

Academic Ov. ‘Cornell’, op.9, 1900

Dawn, fantasy on Amerindian themes, pf, small orch, 1904 [from pf piece]

Symbolistic Study no.2 ‘Perhelion’, pf, orch, 1904, inc.

Symbolistic Study no.3, after W. Whitman: Once I passed through a populous city, op.18, 1905, reorchd 1921

Symbolistic Study no.4, 1906, inc.

Symbolistic Study no.5, 1906, inc.

The Domain of Hurakan, op.15, 1910 [from pf piece]

Sym. Poem on March! March!, op.49, chorus ad lib, 1921

The Gods of the Mountain, suite, op.52, 1928 [from incid music, 1917]

Prelude to a Spiritual Drama, op.76, 1935 [based on themes from music to the Pilgrimage Play]

Rudolf Gott Sym., op.95, 1932–4 [based on themes and opening by Gott]

Symbolistic Study no.6 ‘Mountain Vision’, op.37, 2 pf, small orch, 1938 [from pf piece]

Indian Suite, op.110, 1944

The Heroic Breed, op.115, 1946 [in memoriam General Patton]

2 other works

Chamber and solo instrumental

Ballade, op.1, vn, pf, 1898

Owasco Memories, op.8, pf trio, 1901 [from pf work]

To Morfydd, ob, pf, 1903

Prairie Miniature, op.20, wind qnt, n.d. [from no.2 of From Mesa and Plain, pf]

Around the Lodge: Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas, op.21, vn, pf, c1905 [from pf piece]

Fugue Fantasy, op.44, str qt, 1914

The Gods of the Mountain (incid music, Dunaway), op.52, vn, vc, hp/pf, 1917, orchd suite, 1928

Song-Flight, vn, pf, op.61, 1922

Str Qt ‘The Hako’, A, op.65, 1922

Sonata, op.80, vn, pf, 1927, rev. 1935

Melody, e, op.77, vn, pf, 1928

Land of Luthany, op.87, 1931

Eothen, op.92, vn, pf, 1931

Sonata, g, op.96, vn, 1934

Pf Qnt, e, op.103, 1937

Suite, op.114, fl, pf, 1949

Sonata, op.116, vc, pf, 1950


Treasured Deeps, Flame Voiced Night, op.45, c1915

Modal Invention, Dorian, op.68, 1923

Americana, op.78, 1927

What’s in an Octave?, op.84, 1930

In the Tetons, op.86, 1930

Vale of Enitharmon, op.91, 1930

Prelude and Fugue, op.94, 1931–6

2 Compositions: Emanation, Fire Principle, op.93, 1932

Meditations, op.97, 1934

2 Tone-Pictures: Pastel, Marine, op.104, 1936

Polytonal Studies, op.109, 1940–52

Melody, d, 1948

Pf Sonata, op.113, 1949

other works

2 Poems

Tone Pictures after Pastels in Prose, op.7, 1896

Owasco Memories, op.8, 1899, arr. pf trio, 1901

American Indian Melodies, op.11, 1900

Dawn, fantasy on 2 Indian themes, op.12, 1901, arr. pf, small orch, 1904

Symbolistic Study no.1 ‘Toward the Dream’, op.16, 1901

The Domain of Hurakan, op.15, 1902, orchd 1910

From Mesa and Plain, op.20, 1905, no.1, Navajo War Dance, arr. orch and incl. in Indian Suite, 1944, no.2 arr. wind qnt as Prairie Miniature; Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas, op.21, 1905 [1 piece, Around the Lodge, arr. vn, pf, c1905]

Symbolistic Study no.6 ‘Mountain Vision’, 1912, arr. 2 pf, small orch, op.37, 1938

Laughing Piece, 1914, rev. 1940


for 1 voice and piano unless otherwise stated

The Lamb, A Cradle Song, op.88, 1930, no.1 arr. S, A, T, B, SATB, 1930

Invocation to the Sun God, op.89, 1930

The Tyger (W. Blake), op.98, 1934

The Hound of Heaven (F. Thompson), op.100, 1935, arr. 1v, orch; 4 Emily Dickinson Songs: Saviour, unto me, As if the Sea, Good Morning, Midnight, op.101, 1936

12 Emily Dickinson Songs, op.107, 1941–4

10 Emily Dickinson Songs, op.112, 1949

I had no Time to Hate (E. Dickinson), 1949

over 70 other songs

2 Blake Songs

A Ruined Garden, op.14, 1902

Drake’s Drum, op.22, 1905

Folk Songs of the West and South, op.19, 1905

3 Indian Songs, op.32, 1908

The Farewell, op.33, 1910

Sea Vision (G. Sterling), op.36, 1912

3 Poems by Shelley, op.43, 1914

Soldier, Soldier!, op.53, Bar, orch, 1919

3 Songs: Love’s Cathedral, The Wild Flower’s Song, Cold on the Plantation, op.54, 1919

Spanish Songs of Old California, op.59, 1923

Sonnet to a City, op.64, 1922

3 Songs: The Ravens are Singing, A Dawn Song, Dark her Lodge Door, op.69, 1924

2 Shelley Songs: Song of Proserpine, To Night, op.72, 1926, no.1 arr. 1v, orch


Build thee More Stately Mansions, op.10, 4vv, 1901

Wanderer’s Night Song (J.W. Goethe), op.27, male 4vv, 1907

Keramos (H.W. Longfellow), op.28, male 4vv, 1907

O Captain, my Captain (W. Whitman), op.34, 1918

Hymn to Liberty (Farwell), op.35, chorus, orch, 1910

The Christ Child’s Christmas Tree, op.41, 1913

Sym. Song on ‘Old Black Joe’ (S. Foster), op.67, audience, orch, 1923

The Lamb, S, A, T, B, SATB, 1930 [from no.1 of 2 Blake Songs, op.88]

4 Indian Songs, op.102, 1937

2 Choruses: Navajo War Dance, Indian Scene, op.111, 8vv, 1946

8 other works

Pageants, masques, community music

Joseph and his Brethren (L.N. Parker), incid music, op.38, 1912

Caliban (P. MacKaye, after W. Shakespeare), incid music for tercentenary masque, op.47, 1915 [songs pubd as 3 Songs from Caliban, op.47a, 1916, arr. 1v, orch]

The Evergreen Tree (MacKaye), Christmas masque, op.50, 1917

The Pilgrimage Play (C.W. Stevenson), incid music, op.58, 1920–21

Grail Song, masque, op.70, 1925

Mountain Song, sym. song ceremony, op.90, chorus, orch, 1931

Cartoon, or, Once Upon a Time Recently (E.K. Wallace, Farwell), operatic fantasy, 1948

c21 other works, incl. 6 inc. ones

MSS in US-NYp, PHf; Evelyn Davis Collection, Oral Roberts U., Tulsa; archives with B. Farwell, Morgan Hill, CA

Principal publishers: G. Schirmer, Wa-Wan


  • E.N. Waters: ‘The Wa-Wan Press: an Adventure in Musical Idealism’, A Birthday Offering to Carl Engel, ed. G. Reese (New York, 1943), 214–33
  • E. L. Kirk: Toward American Music: a Study of the Life and Music of Arthur George Farwell (diss., U. of Rochester, 1958)
  • V.B. Lawrence, ed.: The Wa-Wan Press, 1901–1911 (New York,1970) [repr. of the entire press run incl. introduction by G. Chase: ‘The Wa-Wan Press: a Chapter in American Enterprise’]
  • E. J. Davis: The Significance of Arthur Farwell as an American Music Educator (PhD diss., U. of Maryland, 1972)
  • B. Farwell, ed.: A Guide to the Music of Arthur Farwell and to the Microfilm Collection of his Work (New York, 1972)
  • E. D. Culbertson: ‘Arthur Farwell’s Early Efforts on Behalf of American Music, 1889–1921’, American Music, 5/2 (1987), 156–75
  • T. Stoner: ‘The New Gospel of Music: Arthur Farwell’s Vision of Democratic Music in America’, American Music, 9/2 (1991), 183–208
  • E. D. Culbertson: He Heard America Singing: Arthur Farwell, Composer and Crusading Music Educator (Metuchen, NJ, 1992)
  • A. Farwell: Wanderjahre of a Revolutionist and other Essays on American Music, ed. T. Stoner (Rochester, NY, 1995) [autobiographical articles]
New York, Public Library at Lincoln Center, Music Division
Philadelphia, Free Library of Philadelphia, Music Dept
D. Ewen: American Composers: a Biographical Dictionary