While today Charles Ives is considered to be the most
prominent American composer around the turn of the 20th century, it
was in fact his teacher, Horatio Parker, which stood at the forefront of
American classical music and whose music garnered national and international
praise. Quiet in contrast to his student, Parker composed in a relatively
conservative Romantic style inspired by the German masters, and is largely
remembered today for his oratorio Hora
Novissima and his church music.
Born in Auburndale, Massachusetts on September 15, 1863,
Parker received his first musical instruction from his mother. During his
teenage years, he began to compose. Though these early pieces lacked maturity,
they nonetheless revealed his burgeoning talent. Parker later left for Boston
where he studied composition with George Whitefield Chadwick, music theory with
Stephen Emery, and piano with John Orth, as well as serving as a local church
As many American musicians did in the latter part of the 19th century, Parker left the United States in 1882 to experience and benefit from
the rich and studied culture of Europe. He enrolled at the Munich Academy of
Music where he studied composition with Josef Rheinberger. During the next
three years, his first large scale compositions appeared, including a symphony
and a cantata. Parker returned to the United States after the completion of his
studies in 1885, and for the next eight years worked as a musician at three of
New York City's major churches.
In 1893, before leaving New York City to return to his
native Massachusetts, Parker composed his oratorio Hora Novissima, based on the opening works of De contemptu mundi by the French Benedictine monk, Bernard of
Cluny. The work won Parker national praise, and it was even bestowed the honor
of being performed at the Three Choirs Festival in Worchester, England. It was
the first composition by an American composer to be performed at the festival
and was lauded by European critics.
Parker accepted a professorship at Yale University in 1895,
and later became Dean of Music in 1904. Over the next years, he turned more to
the composition of large scale choral and dramatic works. Though his choral
works of this period would never come to match Hora Novissima, his first opera, Mona, composed in 1910 won first place
in a competition sponsored by the Metropolitan opera. The success of this work
inspired a second stage work, Fairyland,
composed in 1914, which won a similar prize from the National Federation of
Music Clubs. While both operas enjoyed initial successes, neither obtained a
permanent place in the repertoire.
Parker suffered from weak health his entire life and during
the years of World War I, his health declined significantly. While vacationing
in the West Indies, he contracted pneumonia. He died soon after in Cedarhurst,
New York on December 18, 1919.
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