A 1926 book called Pennsylvania in Music has a chapter titled “The State’s Contribution to American Music” and in that chapter, there’s a subchapter titled “The Big Four.”
In considering America’s musical history there are four composers who must be accorded preeminent rank — Foster, Nevin, Cadman and Burleigh. All are Pennsylvanians. … These four come from western Pennsylvania, having been born in Pittsburgh, Vineacre [the Nevin’s estate in Edgeworth], Johnstown and Erie, respectively. (p. 5)
You should already be familiar with Stephen Foster (1826-1864), but if not, we music librarians or the Center for American Music will enthusiastically put his music into your hands and ears. As for the other 3, they are not as renowned these days so here’s a quick overview:
- Ethelbert Nevin (1862-1901) — Don’t expect romantic era big works for big orchestras from Nevin. He specialized in the small-scale and is most known for his solo piano pieces and songs. From a musical family, Ethelbert’s brother Arthur Nevin (1871-1943) was also well regarded in his day.
- Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946) — Though he was born in Johnstown, Cadman was active in Pittsburgh as a young man as an accompanist, church organist, and music critic. He is perhaps most well-known for his use of Native American melodies in his songs and operas.
- H. [Henry or Harry] T. Burleigh (1866-1949) — as a singer in addition to being a composer, Burleigh was most celebrated for his performances and arrangements of African-American spirituals (and was African-American himself). He was also a protégé of Dvořák but more about that below.
The context and connections between these composers is more than geographical. Pennsylvania in Music states that “Foster’s music, for the most part, is of the folk type. Providence decreed, it appears, that a Pennsylvanian should make the transition from folk to art song, for Ethelbert Nevin forms the connecting link.” (p. 5) When Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) visited the U.S. from 1892-1895, he wrote a piece for Harper’s where he encouraged American composers to utilize such things as the melodies of African-Americans or the chants of Native Americans to create a “truly national music.” Clearly, Cadman and Burleigh carried on in the spirit of what Dvořák suggested. (So did Arthur Nevin who lived for a time amongst the Blackfoot tribe.) Finally, Deane L. Root’s essay “The Stephen Foster–Antonín Dvořák Connection” draws a line right through Burleigh.
As you might now be inspired to explore and listen to these “Big Four” American composers, let’s also take more inspiration from Dvořák about all the myriad music of America:
…it matters little whether the inspiration for the coming folk songs of America is derived from the Negro melodies, the songs of the creoles, the red man’s chant, or the plaintive ditties of the homesick German or Norwegian. Undoubtedly the germs for the best in music lie hidden among all the races that are commingled in this great country.*
* Dvořák’s 1895 “Music in America” essay from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine is reprinted in Appendix A of Dvořák in America: 1892-1895.