John Knowles Paine (January 9, 1839 – April 25, 1906), was the first American-born composer to achieve fame for large-scale orchestral music and the senior member of a group of other composers collectively known as the Boston Six, who were responsible for the first significant body of concert music by composers from the United States, the other five being Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, Edward MacDowell, George Chadwick, and Horatio Parker. Paine was born on January 9, 1839, in Portland, Maine, and grew up in a musical family. His grandfather was an instrument maker who built the first pipe organ in the state of Maine, and his father and uncles were all music teachers. . One uncle was an organist. Another was a composer. His father carried on the family musical instrument business, led the town band, owned the music store, and published music.
In the 1850s Paine took lessons in organ and composition from Hermann Kotzschmar, a German immigrant and local composer, completing his first composition, a string quartet, in 1855 at the age of 16. It became clear that he would need greater educational opportunities to nurture his talent—but the Great Fire of Portland destroyed the family’s business in 1856 and his father died shortly thereafter. Benefit concerts provided a solution. After his first organ recital in 1857, he was appointed organist of Portland’s Haydn Society, and gave a series of recitals with the object of funding a trip to Europe that attracted favorable critical attention from as far away as Boston and raised sufficient funds for Paine to set sail for Berlin in the summer of 1859 where he hoped to further his music education. By the time Paine departed for Europe he was already a skilled pianist, organist, and composer.
On arrival in Europe Paine studied organ with Carl August Haupt and orchestration with Friedrich Wilhelm Wieprecht at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. He spent three years there and worked hard at his studies. He also toured Europe giving organ recitals for those three years, establishing a reputation as an organist that would precede his return to the United States. After returning to the U. S. in 1861, Paine decided to seek his fortune in Boston. When Harvard College needed someone to take charge of the music for its new Appleton Chapel following the sudden death of the choirmaster, the 23-year-old Paine was asked to take over. Despite his lack of a college degree, he was appointed Harvard’s first University organist and choirmaster.
In 1863 the installation of Thomas Hill as Harvard’s president gave Paine a welcome opportunity. Assembling a large chorus and orchestra, he wrote for them a setting of the traditional text Domine, salvum fac praesidem nostrum (“O Lord, make safe our president”). Meanwhile his organ variations on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written at the height of the Civil War, were quickly published; he performed them often on the huge new concert organ at Boston Music Hall. While acting in his role as organist and choirmaster Paine offered free lecture courses in music appreciation, musical history and form, and music theory that would become the core curriculum for Harvard’s newly formed academic music department, the first such department in the United States, and to his eventual appointment as America’s first music professor. He also worked on his first magnum opus, the great Mass in D for chorus, soloists, and orchestra. He would remain a member of the faculty of Harvard until 1905, just a year before his death, serving the Harvard community for 43 years. His many notable students include composer Arthur Foote and musicologist/critic Olin Downes.
In 1866, Paine returned to Berlin for the well received 1867 Berlin premiere of the Mass in D which in the presence of Prussian royalty would give him a reputation that helped him to shape the musical infrastructure of the United States. Harvard’s next president, Charles William Eliot, granted Paine an honorary A.M. in 1869 as one of his first official acts; that meant Paine could be appointed to the faculty as an instructor. Five years later, he managed to have himself named the first academic professor of music at any American university. His pioneering courses in music appreciation and music theory made the curriculum of Department of Music at Harvard a model for American Departments of Music.
Paine’s service as a director of The New England Conservatory of Music, and the lectures he gave there, establish his place at the root of an instruction chain that leads through Eugene Thayer from George Chadwick to Horatio Parker to Charles Ives. He was the first guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the final concerts of its first season, and his works were audience favorites. He is also known for writing America’s first oratorio (St. Peter, 1872), the Centennial Hymn that (with orchestra) opened the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. He was a founder of American Guild of Organists, and co-edited of “Famous Composers and their Works.” Paine is noted for beginning American’s symphonic tradition.Paine’s first symphony, the first written by an American, debuted in 1876 to a rapturous reception. Even more ecstatic was the reaction to his Spring Symphony four years later with its premiere in Sanders Theatre.
In 1889, Paine made one of the first musical recordings on wax cylinder with Theo Wangemann, who was experimenting with sound recording on the newly invented phonograph. Paine devoted his last 15 years to composing a three-act opera, Azara. Acclaimed a masterpiece in concert performances, Azara was scheduled at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1905-06 season, the year of his retirement. He died on April 25, 1906, in Cambridge, MA. Within a few years of Paine’s death his music had all but disappeared from the concert hall, though the general resurgence of interest in early American composers during the later years of the twentieth century provided Paine with a welcome respite from his place in musical limbo. John Knowles Paine was among the initial class of inductees into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 1998. Paine Hall, the concert hall for Harvard’s Department of Music is named after him.
The following works by John Knowles Paine are contained in my collection:
Oedipus Tyrannus, op. 35 (1991): Prelude.
Overture to Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” op. 28 (1876).
Symphony No. 1 in cm, op. 23 (1875).
Symphony No. 2 in AM, op. 34, Im Fruhling (1879).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources