Herbert Elwell, Composer, 1898–1974


Herbert Elwell was born in Minneapolis in 1898, the height of music’s romantic era. One of the first American composers to study with master teacher Nadia Boulanger in France, he wrote his most frequently performed work, The Happy Hypocrite, in 1925, when he was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome. Based on a story by Max Beerbohm, the ballet music sparkled with the wit and charm that characterized the composer and his music.

Throughout his creative career, Elwell constructed his compositions with neoclassical clarity. But he was a romantic at heart. As a young pianist, he accompanied his father, an amateur musician who enjoyed singing parlor songs at home. Elwell once wrote that he “died a thousand deaths” because of his father’s preference for sentimental ballads, such as “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra” and “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’.” Yet, the composer’s own art songs are suffused with warm sentiment.

Attuned to the meter and inflection of English-language poetry, Elwell excelled at shaping melodies that perfectly fit words by Shakespeare, Robert Frost, John Gould Fletcher and others. His lyrical tunes and tonal harmonies put him “at variance with the radical revolutionaries of the present,” wrote a Cleveland critic in 1946. Although Elwell was aware that he was out-of-step with aggressive contemporary innovations, he believed the pendulum of taste would swing back to his preference for the sweeter sensibilities rooted in 19th-century romanticism.

Among Elwell’s finest vocal works are Blue Symphony (1945) for soprano and string quartet, Pastorale (1948), a setting of Old Testament texts for soprano and orchestra, and The Forever Young (1953), a 30-minute “ritual” based on passionate anti-war poems by Pauline Hanson. These works were inspired by Elwell’s muse, Cleveland soprano Marie Simmelink Kraft. In his Sunday columns for the Plain Dealer, which he served as music critic for 32 years, the composer praised the soprano so effusively that executive editor Philip W. Porter once admonished him to stop making love to Mrs. Kraft in print. Elwell impishly replied, “Would you prefer that I make love to her out of print?”

In the 1930s, Elwell walked a fine line as Cleveland’s leading composer, influential music critic, composition teacher and program annotator for the Cleveland Orchestra. A perceptive critic who was credited with raising Cleveland’s musical standards, he wrote reviews that sometimes won him a frosty reception at Severance Hall. During the reign of George Szell, Elwell did not hesitate to take the imperious music director to task. In one review, he described Szell’s Germanic interpretation of Debussy’s La Mer as Das Mer. Despite the barbs, Szell respected Elwell as a composer, and he performed his music at home and on tour. When Elwell retired from The Plain Dealer in 1964, he referred to Szell as “my friend . . . regardless of what I may have said at one time or another.” The following year, Szell programmed The Happy Hypocrite on the Cleveland Orchestra’s tour to Russia and Western Europe.

Elwell’s symphonic music was also championed by conductors Artur Rodzinski, Leopold Stokowski, William Steinberg and Howard Hanson. His chamber music was performed by leading soloists, including violinist Sidney Harth, soprano Lois Marshall and pianists Arthur Loesser, Beryl Rubinstein and Beveridge Webster. One of Elwell’s earliest pieces, Quintet for Piano and Strings (1924), won more praise in Paris than George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was premiered on the same concert.

Elwell began his advanced music education at the University of Minnesota, then studied with Swiss composer Ernest Bloch in New York before traveling to France to attend the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. At the recommendation of Bloch, Elwell came to Cleveland in 1928 to teach composition and music theory at the Cleveland Institute of Music. A faculty member there until 1945, he subsequently taught for nine years at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. He spent summers teaching at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and recharging his batteries at Yaddo, the artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York. Among his pupils were Bain Murray, Walter Aschaffenburg and Howard Whittaker. In the 1960s, Elwell participated in the University of Southern California’s Project for the Training of Music Critics, the program that brought dance and music critic Wilma Salisbury to The Plain Dealer.

Winner of the first Cleveland Arts Prize for Music in 1961, Elwell also received the Paderewski Prize, the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and honorary doctorates from the University of Rochester and Western Reserve University. Following his death in 1974, Elwell’s widow Maria gave his manuscripts, published scores and papers to the Cleveland State University Library. In 1979, the catalogued materials were made available via the On-Line Computer Library Center.

One of the most enduring images of Elwell was penned in 1964 by a Plain Dealer editorial writer, who characterized him as “raconteur, linguist, teacher, and, although Minneapolis-born, possessor of a certain Old World charm that gives a vague impression that he is carrying a walking stick and wearing an Inverness cape. Herb Elwell . . . a man apart.”

—Wilma Salisbury

Cleveland Arts Prize
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