Biographies John Knowles Paine (1839-1906)

John Knowles Paine, 1904.
John Knowles Paine, 1904. From Louis C. Elsen, The History of American Music. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1904, plate XII, facing p. 339. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number: ML200.E46

John Knowles Paine was born in Portland, Maine, on January 9, 1839. He began studying music in his youth, primarily with Hermann Kotzschmar, a German organist who emigrated to the United States in 1848. From 1858 to 1861, he furthered his training in Berlin with organist Karl-August Haupt and composer Wilhelm Wieprecht. Firmly grounded in the musical taste and culture of mid-nineteenth-century Europe, he returned to the United States to begin a lengthy and respected career as organist, composer, and professor of music.

After settling in Boston in 1861, Paine became organist and choir director at West Church, a position he held until 1864. His reputation soon came to the attention of Harvard University, where he joined the staff as vocal instructor and organist in 1862. In 1875, Paine became the first professor of music at Harvard University and there established the first music department at an American university.

Paine's compositions include two symphonies, a violin sonata, multiple works for piano and organ, a small collection of songs, and an opera (completed, but never staged). Given his background as organist and church musician, choral compositions comprise a good portion of his output. The compositional style of these works reflects the Viennese Classical and early German Romantic aesthetic absorbed by Paine during his musical training in Berlin.

The Mass in D (1865) and oratorio St. Peter (1870-72) are among Paine's most significant contributions to the choral repertoire. Those works received performances in both the United States and Europe, an unprecedented accomplishment for an American composer. He also composed several occasional pieces for chorus: Hymn for Harvard Commencement (1862) and Domine salvum fac praesidem nostrum (1863) for university ceremonies, Centennial Hymn (1876) for the American Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, and Hymn of the West (1904) for the Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exhibition in St. Louis.

Much of Paine's choral music was set for male chorus, written while he was teaching at Harvard University. In addition to his cantata Phoebus, Arise! (1882), Paine's most well received works for male chorus were composed as incidental music for Harvard theater productions, Oedipus tyrannus (1881) and The Birds (1901). His early unaccompanied partsongs for male chorus include Minstrel's Song (1863), Soldier's Oath (1865), and the humorous Radway's Ready Relief (1863), a comic pastiche "advertisement" for a health tonic.

Although widely popular during his lifetime, Paine's works dwindled into obscurity as twentieth-century modernism took hold. Recent editions, writings, recordings and performances have brought Paine's music and his importance in American music history to the attention of present-day audiences and scholars.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress