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Daniels, Mabel Wheeler (1878-1971)

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Biographical Introduction

Mabel Daniels was born in Swampscott, Massachusetts on November 27, 1878. She was an American composer, conductor, and teacher. She attended Radcliffe College and studied with George Whitefield Chadwick before traveling to Germany for further study with Ludwig Thuille in Munich. Upon her return to the United States she became head of the music department at Simmons College, serving there until 1918. She continued working until late in her life, and was given honorary degrees by both Boston University and Tufts University. Much of her output was choral, though she wrote a handful of operettas and some orchestral and chamber works.

Mabel Wheeler Daniels was born on November 27, 1878, into a musical family in Swampscott, Massachusetts, near Boston. Both her grandfathers were church musicians. Her parents sang in Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society and her father also served that prominent musical institution as president. Mabel studied piano from an early age and began writing short pieces by age ten. Her musical interests continued at Radcliffe College, where she sang soprano in the glee club and performed leading roles in operettas. At Radcliffe she composed and conducted two student operettas.

After graduating magna cum laude in 1900, Daniels studied composition with George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory of Music. He suggested that she apply to the Munich Conservatory to study under one of his former classmates, Ludwig Thuille. She went to Munich and boldly tried to enroll in Director Stavenhagen’s score- reading class, into which no woman had been admitted previously. She remembered entering Stavenhagen’s class of thirty male students to play her audition. “You could have heard a pin drop, the place was so still. . . . Just as I took my seat before the keyboard, I heard one of the men smother a laugh. That settled it! I was bound to do or die, and with a calmness quite unnatural I played the bars set before me without a mistake. Nobody laughed when I had finished.”

Upon her return to America, Daniels joined Boston’s Cecilia society, where she was exposed to modern choral works with orchestra. She assumed the directorship of Radcliffe’s glee club and the Bradford Academy music program (1911-13). In 1913, she was appointed head of music at Simmons College, where she served through 1918. She later established composition prizes and funds at Radcliffe to aid music students. Tufts University and Boston University awarded her honorary degrees in 1933 and 1939 respectively. Daniels died in Boston, Massachusetts on March 10, 1971.

The Story of Mabel Daniels, Female Composer

Until comparatively recent years there have been only a few women composers, either in this country or abroad, and most of these have confined themselves to the smaller forms. They have written charming songs, chamber music, piano pieces, and choral works. But only a small number have composed for orchestra.

The reason for this, Mabel Daniels feels, does not necessarily lie in lack of talent. Women have imagination and great natural gifts, and they have achieved distinction in the other creative fields. But they have only recently begun to compose. Since music is the most intangible and the most exacting of the arts, infinite concentration, time, and actual physical labor are required in writing down the endless notes of an orchestral score. The general public has no conception of the work involved; the original inspiration is the least, if the most important, part.

Women with household cares and families to raise can rarely find the time and strength necessary for such work. But with the increasing leisure of today’s world, more women will undoubtedly join the ranks of the composers. Mabel Daniels is so far one of the few who have composed for orchestra, and whose works have been played on important symphony programs.

During an intermission at one of the 1940 Worcester Music Festival concerts, a man walking through the corridors of the War Memorial Auditorium stopped to chat with Mabel Daniels. Albert Stoessel, directing the orchestra, a large chorus, and Rose Bampton soloist, had just finished a stirring performance of an important new choral work called The Song of Jael.

“I liked the piece they just played,” the man confided, “that one about Jail….”

Miss Daniels smiled and gave a slight bow. “Why on earth,” he continued, “did they have that woman come up on the platform?”

“Perhaps—” Miss Daniels replied with a twinkle in her eyes, “she was the composer!”

“Composer?” the man looked bewildered. It hadn’t occurred to him that such an ambitious work could have been written by a woman‚—much less that he was at that very moment talking to the one who wrote it. His reaction, says Miss Daniels, is typical of most of the American public.

Although most of her life has been devoted exclusively to music, Miss Daniels’s first ambition was to write stories. Born in Swampscott, Massachusetts, she is a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander and has spent most of her life in and around Boston. Music was a daily part of her early environment. One of her grandfathers played the organ, and the other directed a choir, while both her parents sang in Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society chorus. (Mr. Daniels later became president of this society).

Mabel Daniels’s earliest musical recollection has to do with a rehearsal of Verdi’s Requiem which she attended, hand in hand with her mother. She was excited to discover her father in the chorus. The music fascinated her, but the “Dies Irae” so overpowered her by its terrifying force that she cried and begged her mother to take her home.

She was given piano lessons at an early age and often made up pieces to play. (When ten years old she wrote a Fairy Charm Waltz). She also had a fine soprano voice, and this was what really started her on a musical career. At Radcliffe she sang in the Radcliffe Choral Society and took leading parts in the college operettas. Soon she was made director of the Society and began writing music for the operettas. She composed two of these and conducted them herself. Miss Daniels graduated from Radcliffe magna cum laude—though she insists, with the charming sense of humor that is one of her main characteristics, that she received this honor only because the courses were elective and she chose the easiest ones.

By the time she had finished college Mabel Daniels knew that music, and more particularly composing, was to be her life’s work. For a time she studied composition and orchestration with George W. Chadwick in Boston. Then she went to Germany to work with Ludwig Thuille.

When she tried to join the score-reading class at the Royal Conservatory in Munich, the director was frankly upset. No woman had ever before presumed to ask admittance. After long and weighty consideration, and “with an expression worthy of a crisis in the affairs of state,” he finally gave his consent saying: “Of course, that a Fraulein has never before joined the class is no reason why a Fraulein never can!” When, after two winters spent in Germany Miss Daniels came back to the United States, she recorded this incident and many of her foreign experiences in an interesting book of memoirs.

On her return to Boston she joined the Cecilia Society—a chorus of mixed voices. Since she could not play an instrument, the next best thing was to sing in a chorus giving works with orchestra, and since the Cecilia Society often performed modern works it offered her the chance to get at these scores “from the inside.” The rehearsals with orchestra were especially valuable and stimulated her natural bent for choral writing.

Every creative artist, whether painter, sculptor, writer, or musician, dreams of a retreat where he can work undisturbed by noise or interruption. Edward MacDowell, America’s first great composer, discovered such a retreat in the wooded hills of New Hampshire. There he found inspiration for his work, and refreshment for body, mind and spirit. These priceless gifts he longed to share with others.

Mabel Wheeler Daniels musicAt MacDowell’s death his widow dedicated her life to the project they had planned together. The wooded acres of their New Hampshire farm were turned over to a Memorial Association, and largely through the personal efforts of Mrs. MacDowell, who toured the country giving concerts to raise the necessary funds, the colony gradually took shape: old farm houses were transformed into eating, sleeping and recreation buildings, and small studios were built‚—scattered through the woods‚—each one in that complete isolation that had meant so much to MacDowell himself. A group of working artists, recommended for their talent and promise and chosen by a special committee from a large number of applicants, gathers here each year, and many important works have sprung from this fruitful environment. It would be difficult to estimate the influence that the McDowell Colony has had on the cultural development of America.

During the colony’s early years a festival, or pageant, was put on each summer in the forest-encircled amphitheater. Mrs. MacDowell—always interested in promising young composers—learned of Mabel Daniels’s The Desolate City (an early choral work for baritone and orchestra) and was so struck by it that she asked her to direct a performance of The Desolate City at the pageant. This was Miss Daniels’ first important composition. The following year she was invited to return as a colonist, and since then most of her music has been written at the colony. She is now a corporate member of the Edward MacDowell Association.

The lovely New Hampshire woods inspired one of her most widely played compositions. Deep Forest, a “delicately imaginative work,” was originally written for chamber orchestra and first played by the Barrere Little Symphony. She later rewrote it for full orchestra, and in that form it has been performed by Koussevitzky, Barbirolli, Kindler, and a number of other leading conductors throughout the country. At the Carnegie Hall Festival in 1939, under the sponsorship of ASCAP, Mabel Daniels’s Deep Forest was the only work by an American woman composer to be played on the program of serious music. She is a member of the American Composers’ Alliance, ASCAP, and the College Club of Boston; an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa, Mu Phi Epsilon, and the Musical Guild; and an alumna trustee of Radcliffe College. In 1933 she was awarded an honorary M.A. degree from Tufts College, and in 1939 a Doctor of Music Degree from Boston University. She has also received a number of prizes for her compositions.

When Radcliffe College planned a special celebration for its fiftieth anniversary, in 1929, President Comstock invited Miss Daniels to compose a choral work in honor of the occasion. For this, she wrote Exultate Deo, for mixed chorus and orchestra. It was performed at the jubilee celebration by the combined Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society, and later by Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony and the Cecilia Society, and the High School Choruses and Orchestra of Philadelphia. It has become Miss Daniels’s best known work, and has been given all over the United States and as far west as Manila. Although it has been a good many years since this choral work was written it is still frequently performed on high school programs all over the country.

Among her other earlier compositions are Peace and Liberty (chorus and orchestra), and Pirates’ Island, a humorous suite for orchestra alone. This last was played at summer concerts of the Cleveland Symphony under Rudolf Ringwell, and soon after Arthur Fiedler performed it with the Boston Pops Orchestra. It was just at this time that Ted Shawn, looking for new music for his ballet group, chanced to be in town. He heard Mabel Daniels’s piece, and found it just suited his needs. The following summer Pirates’ Island was given as a ballet at Robinhood Dell by Ted Shawn and his dancers, accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Another of Miss Daniels’s more recent pieces has also been arranged for ballet: two movements from her Three Observations for Three Woodwinds.

Miss Daniels’s most important work,—The Song of Jael, scored for orchestra, chorus and soprano solo‚—is founded on a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson. He was a close friend of Miss Daniels’s: shortly before his death in 1935 she discussed with him plans for the work. Although her earlier compositions are more conventional in style, The Song of Jael shows a definite use of modern idiom. The critic of the Boston Post called it:

a prolonged hymn of triumph that comes to a mighty climax. Few American composers have been so successful as Miss Daniels in choral writing and the outstanding feature of her Jael is the striking and frequent highly original handling of the chorus. There are, nevertheless, many effective moments in the orchestral score, while the long soprano solo is dramatic and impressive. This by no means conventional piece makes a valuable contribution to American choral literature.

The Song of Jael was Mabel Daniels’s first venture into “modern” music writing. Since then she has written entirely in this style. Her later works include Pastoral Ode for flute and strings (1940) first played by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and by Dr. Frank Black over the National Broadcasting System; Three Observations for Three Woodwinds, a short satirical skit “not intended to be taken very seriously”‚—but always enjoyed by audiences; Digressions for String Orchestra; Two Pieces for Violin and Piano: Diversion for Diana and Remembering Two Young Soldiers, played by Oscar Bogerth, the brilliant Brazilian violinist, at his 1948 concert in Boston, and also by Ruth Posselt; and, in 1951, Overture for Orchestra.

mwd3 daniels3Mabel Daniels has always taken a deep interest in music students. She has anonymously offered two prizes in composition to undergraduates in colleges for women. At Radcliffe she founded a loan fund for students majoring in music, and from this has sprung a “Mabel Daniels Beneficiary Fund” named by her class in her honor. This fund is used to buy symphony tickets and music, and to aid needy students. Shortly after she graduated she presented the college with a silver cup for the class singing competition, held annually in the spring in the college yard, which has since become a college tradition.

In her music Miss Daniels believes in retaining the best of the old, but she is constantly experimenting with new forms (as her later works show) selecting and choosing from modern counterpoint and harmony what seems to her to have the greatest value. Much of present day music, she feels, is immensely clever, but too often turns its back completely on the rich heritage of the past. In its effort to avoid the slightest taint of nineteenth century “lush sentimentality” it goes to the other extreme and becomes purely cerebral and mathematical, “Real music should be more than a crossword puzzle,” Mabel Daniels insists. “It must have something human in it.” It is this human quality that makes her own work noteworthy.

— By Madeline Goss, from Modern Music-Makers: Contemporary American Composers published by E.P. Dutton and Company, New York, 1952.

A Brief Note on Unitarian Connections

Mabel Wheeler Daniels was a celebrated member of Boston’s Arlington Street Church whose pulpit was long filled by William Ellery Channing.