Arthur Foote’s “cult of the restrained in art,” so well expressed in “A Night Piece,” represents another America, a parallel native culture pushed aside by the “cult of unrestrained expression.” Foote demonstrates that one need not be Aaron Copeland or Leonard Bernstein to be fully American.

Nestled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the “Boston Six” composers rest in quiet obscurity. This “Second New England School,” as they are often called, comprised John Knowles Paine, Horatio Parker, Edward MacDowell, Amy Beach, George Chadwick, and Arthur Foote. All were renowned in their day: Knowles at Harvard, Parker at Yale, and Chadwick at the New England Conservatory. MacDowell founded an artist enclave in New Hampshire that still bears his name. Beach is experiencing something of a renaissance lately, especially her Gaelic Symphony (1896). Of the six, Foote is perhaps the most interesting, especially his 1923 “A Night Piece,” a chamber music staple. It represents a counter American musical tradition rooted in the New England “cult of the restrained in art.”

Arthur William Foote was born in Salem, Massachusetts on March 5, 1853—the day Franklin Pierce became president of the United States—to a family with deep New England roots. His paternal great-grandfather Caleb Foote served under General Washington at the 1775 Siege of Boston and was captured three years later while serving on an American privateer. The British sent Foote and his fellows first to Quebec and thence to England where they languished in prison for two years, before escaping to Holland and back to Salem by 1781. By the nineteenth century, the Footes were among Salem’s leading families and the composer’s father Caleb Foote III co-owned the Salem Gazette, the Whig and later Republican newspaper in town. His mother’s family were no less distinguished. Mary Wilder White Foote was daughter of Judge Daniel Appleton White, congressman and longtime Essex County judge, and close friends with Sophia Peabody, the wife of Salem novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.[1]

Foote’s youth was one of comfort, happiness, and indulgence in his passion for music, albeit rather late. He did not begin formal musical training until age twelve. The family lived in a grand home on Chestnut Street, still the loveliest street in Salem, and he remembered the town of his 1850s and 1860s youth as a paradise lost:

Salem in those days was a delightful place to live in. There was contentment and good average prosperity; with small incomes there was still ease. The richer people, though in beautiful houses and with much comfort, were singularly without ostentation. All wages were indeed small in comparison with those of today. Labor troubles were unknown. There was greater happiness, I think, in the lives of those who work with their hands. Thoughtful persons have for years realized that the great disproportion in what is got out of life by the poorer and richer groups was bound to disappear by degrees—something such of us as have lived until the present century have seen come to pass. But in the early years of my life the old conditions still existed.

Foote entered Harvard in 1870 and studied under John Knowles Paine, the first professor of music in the United States and original member of the Boston Six. One gets the sense from reading Foote’s Autobiography that their relationship was complicated, that respect came later in life. “In later years I came to know him intimately and to be fond of him. He was not one of the born teachers, but certainly he could give generously… His influence was always for what was strong and good in music.” Like his teacher, Foote also set a milestone. Harvard awarded him a Master of Arts in Music in 1875, “the first time it was ever given in this country for excellence in this subject,” he wrote proudly. Of his composing contemporaries, many of whom learned in Europe, Foote was entirely American-trained.[2]

For the next sixty years, Foote spent his time teaching and traveling in Boston, California, and Europe (a lover of Richard Wagner, he attended the opening Bayreuth Festival in 1876), and composed a number of works, particularly in church organ (he served as organist at the First Unitarian Church of Boston for twenty-two years) and chamber music. The music historian Nicholas E. Tawa notes that Foote worked diligently within the structures of European classical music and never sought to transcend them, hence his organ compositions, while “skillfully made” sought no new ground. They were nevertheless popular: “Foote introduces nothing dramatic, picturesque, or exploitative of piano coloring. On the other hand, the music public took pleasure in the composer’s expertise, his fascinating treatment of the material, and, not least, the articulate and moving melodic lines.” His chamber music pieces also made impact, and Tawa writes that he “introduced greater vigor, contrast, harmonic sophistication, contrapuntal activity, and emotional scope” to his work beginning in the 1890s. These compositions made Foote a national figure and on Thanksgiving Day 1914, church organists around the nation united to play his Festival March “as an expression of gratitude for his recovery from a serious illness.”[3]

Foote outlived most of his Boston Six compatriots. He retired to his South Hampton, New Hampshire estate “Rest Harrow” in the 1920s to indulge in life as a music elder and country gentleman. “The country was open, with wooded hills, and Hampton Beach four miles to the east,” he wrote. “Its radiant quiet descended upon us like a blessing. Of friends and music there was no lack, and always country work to interest one.” He also lamented the modernist turn in music represented by Igor Stravinsky and younger composers “who grew up with the sounds of grinding automobile brakes, the blasts of steel mills, and the hum of airplane motors in their ears” to influence their music. Upon his death in April 1937, eulogists pondered curiously over the unprepossessing composer, his fastidious self-doubt, and lack of self-promotion. One music critic wrote that “He never blew his own trumpet; he was utterly unskilled in the art of crying up his own wares… The art of self-advertisement was something he was ashamed to learn.” This reticence, that hype was demeaning or unbecoming, played a role in his coming obscureness. Olin Downes remarked in his New York Times music column that there “was something of Thoreau’s philosophy about [Foote], though he never indulged in a hut on Walden Pond,” plugging away dutifully in Boston and South Hampton to little fanfare.[4]

“A Night Piece” was one of Foote’s last compositions and of all his works, the most performed. He composed it just before World War One. It first appeared as part of Nocturne and Scherzo for flute and string quartet in 1919, but he reworked the piece in the quietude of “Rest Harrow” and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed it in new form in April 1923. On one level, the piece is lullabyish, a brief but dreamy voyage from consciousness to sleep, upon the back of “an ethereal melody for flute.” It bears resemblance to Jules Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs (1894) and Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 (1911) in its simplicity and serenity. Nicholas Tawa sees in this musical tranquility a window into Foote’s soul. “As in so many of his compositions, the music is managed with a fragile self-effacement. The writing is extraordinary for its lack of clichés. Although content with traditional practices and indisposed to experiment, Foote creates sounds at once vivid, sincere, and peculiarly original.” Yet there is also reference to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (1888), as three notes in the first movement “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” are very similar to the first three notes of “A Night Piece,” a peculiar pairing between the lush Russian suite and a demure New England chamber piece.[5]

Those three notes point to another level of “A Night Piece” beneath that of dreams. It is too strong to say they are foreboding, ominous, or threatening. There are no nightmares here. Instead, Foote’s composition suggests uncertainty, uneasiness, and mystery, that “there is something out there” to frustrate contentment and will be there tomorrow night too. There is gloom in Foote’s work. Perhaps he had William Wordsworth’s 1815 poem “A Night-Piece” in mind, which speaks of an anxious traveler on a dark road:

The sky is overcast
With a continuous cloud of texture close,
Heavy and wan, all whitened by the Moon,
Which through that veil is indistinctly seen,
A dull, contracted circle, yielding light
So feebly spread, that not a shadow falls,
Chequering the ground—from rock, plant, tree, or tower

Then, the moonlight penetrates the clouds, bringing at least temporary respite from the blackness.

At length the Vision closes; and the mind,
Not undisturbed by the delight it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.

Foote’s “Night Piece” follows a similar path, at once both comforting and disquieting, restful and restive. Something “out there” makes us uneasy but is shrouded.

A few years after Foote released “A Night Piece,” he began writing his autobiography for his daughter. In it, he meditates on old Salem, the city he remembered as a boy, with its illustrious history of witch trials, East Indies riches, and Hawthorne’s gothic imagination. That Salem never left Arthur Foote. In its atmospheric mystery, “A Night Piece” makes that clear.

The Footes’ friend Nathaniel Hawthorne understood this in his 1831 short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” written two decades before Foote’s birth, with its evocative descriptions of an old colonial city with its “ill-built houses straggling towards the harbor” in the eerie unnatural quiet of night. As the protagonist Robin goes searching for his kinsman, he gets lost:

He now became entangled in a succession of crooked and narrow streets, which crossed each other, and meandered at no great distance from the waterside. The smell of tar was obvious to his nostrils, the masts of vessels pierced the moonlight above the tops of the buildings, and the numerous signs, which Robin paused to read, informed him that he was near the centre of business. But the streets were empty, the shops were closed, and the lights were visible only in the second stories of the few dwelling-houses.

Tired and fighting sleep, he pauses his futile searching by sitting on the steps of church to examine his surroundings:

And first he threw his eyes along the street; it was of more respectable appearance than most of those into which he had wandered, and the moon, creating, like the imaginative power, a beautiful strangeness in familiar objects, gave something of romance to a scene, that might not have possessed it in the light of day. The irregular and often quaint architecture of the houses, some of whose roofs were broken into numerous little peaks, while others ascended, steep and narrow, into a single point, and others again were square; the pure-milk white of some of their complexions, the aged darkness of others, and the thousand sparklings, reflected from bright substances in the walls of many; these matters engaged Robin’s attention for a while, and then began to grow wearisome. Next, he endeavored to define the forms of distant objects, starting away, with almost ghostly indistinctness, just as his eye appeared to grasp them.

In many ways, Foote scored “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” with his “Night Piece,” a tale of secrets, dreams, and hidden realities.[6]

Salem persists as a city of small lanes, venerable homes, and damp autumn nights. In my youth, wandering the byways between Derby and Essex Streets, Salem remained a mysterious place. When the weather turned colder and mist pushed onshore off the grey Atlantic, dampening the pavement and the brick sidewalks, the city became a somber place. Even in the 1980s, something of the old city remained. On the damp narrow streets, with faded yellow, red, blue, and white eighteenth-century homes huddled close to the road and each other, with windows of drawn shades at eyesight height, with the smell of the ocean and fog dampening all sound but your footsteps on wet brick, you felt the anxiety of not knowing what was in front or behind you. Foote’s hometown was both happily familiar and oddly unsettling.

When Arthur Foote died in 1937, the composer Frederick Jacobi praised him effusively as contributing to a New England style of music:

He was refined without being precious; he had wit and charm and his originality was expressed by the turn of a phrase, by the aggregate of his being, rather than by a striking or arresting exterior. He was tender and his warmth showed itself through an admirable web of New England tradition: a tradition which was the base of his cult of the restrained in art. Overpowering passions were neither felt nor desired, it was an abstract, though friendly, beauty he sought.

“A Night Piece” is as New England as a Hawthorne short story or a Whittier poem of lore, full of romantic mystery. In its pensiveness, one senses the warnings of Eliot, Babbitt, and Wendell that healthy originality is founded upon tradition, not eccentricity based in juvenile impatience with obstructions to unbounded expression. When asked his reaction to Igor Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring (1913), Foote acknowledged that it shocked its audience, but “after the shock is over, what have you left?” By governing the passions, restraint led to beauty. Foote’s “cult of the restrained in art,” so well expressed in “A Night Piece,” represents another America, a parallel native culture pushed aside by the “cult of unrestrained expression.” Arthur Foote demonstrates one need not be Aaron Copeland or Leonard Bernstein to be fully American.[7]

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[1] Reminiscences of the Revolution: Prison letters and sea journal of Caleb Foot, born 1750, died 1787. Ed. Caleb Foote (Salem, MA, 1889); Arthur Foote. Arthur Foote, 1853-1937 (Norwood, MA, 1946); Edwin H. Miller. Salem is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Iowa City, IA, 1991) 200.

[2] Foote, 13, 33.

[3] Nicholas E. Tawa. From Psalm to Symphony: A History of Music in New England (Boston, MA, 2001) 181-82, 186-87.

[4] Foote, 103, 125; Tawa, 180; New York Times, April 18.1937.

[5] Tawa, 186.

[6] Nathaniel Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” in The Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York, NY, 1965) 1211, 1214, 1216-17.

[7] Foote, 134; New York Times, April 18, 1937.

The featured image is “Moonlight in Beaulieu” (1904) by Frits Thaulow (1847–1906) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.

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