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Frederick S. Shepherd and “The Mystic Trumpeter”

Frederick Shepherd Converse (January 5, 1871 – June 8, 1940) was an American composer, teacher, and administrator who was born in Newton, MA, 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. Frederick had already received instruction in piano playing, which he began at the age of ten, before going on to receive his higher education at Harvard College in 1889, where he came under the influence of the composer John Knowles Paine. Converse, and the study of musical theory was a most important part of his college course. Upon his graduation in 1893, his violin sonata (op. 1) was performed and won him highest honors in music.

After six months of commercial business life, for which his father had intended him, Converse returned to the study of music, with Carl Baermann for piano and George W. Chadwick, another well-known composer of the so-called New England School, for composition. He married Emma Tudor, daughter of Frederic Tudor of Brookline, MA, on June 6, 1894. They had they had two sons, Frederick S. Jr. and Edmund Winchester 2nd, both of whom died at an early age, and five daughters, Louise, Augusta, Marie, Virginia, and Elizabeth. He then left in 1896 to spend two years at the Royal Academy of Music in Munich, Germany, where he studied with Joseph Rheinberger, completing the course in 1898. His first developed works were created at this time, the overture Youth (1895) and his Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1898), which had its first performance on the occasion of his graduation.

Returning to the States, Converse settled at Westwood, MA, and became deeply involved in the musical life of the Boston area, serving as an instructor and teaching harmony at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston from 1899 to 1902. His works of this time, such as the orchestral piece Endymion’s Narrative After Keats (1901), Night and Day (1901), and the vocal work for baritone and orchestra La belle dame sans merci on a text by Keats (1902), began to show the influence of poetic imagery. He then joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1903 as instructor in music, and was appointed assistant professor in 1905. Two years later he resigned, and afterwards devoted himself exclusively to composition. Among Converse’s notable students were Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) and Florence Price (1888-1953).

The years between 1907 and 1914 saw Converse at the height of his career as a composer. Even though he was firmly committed to composing in the late Romantic idiom of his European contemporaries, his works often dealt with American subjects. Today, Converse is best known for his symphonic poem The Mystic Trumpeter (Op. 19, 1904), based on the poem of the same name from Walt Whitman’s iconic anthology, Leaves of Grass. In 1910, Converse’s opera The Pipe of Desire (Op. 21) became the first American work ever to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. An opera in one act, with text by George Edward Barton, it 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.

From 1908 through 1914, Converse was one organizers of the Boston Opera Company and served as its first Vice President, supervising the organization and administration of the company. He also oversaw the production of performances of both his first opera and its more successful successor, The Sacrifice (1910), with a text by both Converse and his close friend Percy MacKaye. Two other operas written with MacKaye, Beauty and the Beast (or Sinbad the Sailor) (1913) and The Immigrants (1914), remain unperformed. This was followed with the composition of the symphonic poems Ormazd (1911) after the ancient Persian Bundehesch and Ave atque vale (1916).

In World War I, Converse served in the Massachusetts State Guard and was a member of the National Committee on Army and Navy Camp Music. After the conflict, he began teaching again at the New England Conservatory, in 1920 as head of the theory department, and in 1931 was appointed dean of the faculty, remaining there until 1938, when he resigned due to failing health.. This period saw many performances of Converse’s works, including the Second (1919), Third (1921), and Fourth (1934) symphonies, and several tone poems, including Song of the Sea (1923) after Whitman, Flivver Ten Million (1926), American Sketches (Seeing America First) (1928), and Prophecy for soprano and orchestra (1932).

One of the first American composers to create large-scale symphonic poems and well-known for his brilliant orchestrations, Converse was elected into the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1908) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1937). The lush orchestral scoring of his program music has been compared to the early style of Richard Strauss. He died in 1940 at Westwood, MA. The following three works by Converse are included in my collection:

Endymion’s Narrative, op. 10 (1901).
Flivver Ten Million: A Joyous Epic Inspired by the Familiar Legend “The Ten Millionth Ford is Now Serving Its Owner” (1927).
The Mystic Trumpeter (1904).


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