Thursday, October 7, 2010

Composer James Houston Spencer

Franklin County, NY native James H. Spencer is being honored in the 30th season of the Adrian, Michigan Symphony Orchestra.  A former professor at Adrian College, Spencer composed The Fiddler of the Northern Lights, which debuts as part of the  Adrian Symphony Orchestra's October Program.

From the ASO website's program note by Amy Winberg: 

The Fiddler of the Northern Lights

James Houston Spencer (1985–1967)

These past few weeks, the Music History class of Fall 2010 has had the opportunity to delve into the past and become acquainted with our wonderful new building’s namesake, James Houston Spencer. We would like to thank Hildreth Spencer, James’s daughter, for taking the time to help us reconnect with our past. Peeking into this composer’s mind has allowed us to experience history, both in the past and currently in the making. We invite you to join us as we venture deeper into the life that was James Spencer.

James Houston Spencer was born on July 28, 1895 in Malone, New York, a small town on the border between New York and Quebec, to parents Franklin Talmadge Spencer and Mary Elizabeth Houston. Even without formal training, both of his parents were proficient musicians, his father in trumpet and violin and his mother in piano, which exposed James to the joys of music from a very young age. Spencer studied piano and cello during his childhood in Malone and later pursued music at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts. It was here that Spencer made the decision to give up the cello in favor of the organ and pursue his interest in conducting and composition, studying under Arthur Foote as well as George Whitefield Chadwick. In the summer of 1921, Spencer interviewed for the position of music director at Adrian College and soon made Adrian his home, teaching and composing numerous works. Tonight, we remember Spencer with the premiere of his final work, The Fiddler of the Northern Lights.

Fiddler was finished, according to the final page of the score, at 4:00 pm on September 29, 1966. It combines Spencer’s natural story-telling ability with his mature musical style. Living so near the Canadian border, the local store would sell to customers not just from Malone, but also those who came down from Canada, specifically those from Quebec. We see this cultural influence in the appearance of the two French folk songs employed in the piece, "Frère Jacques" and "Allouette," and in the story from which the work draws its inspiration.

Fiddler is a tone poem depicting the old French Canadian folk legend of the myth of the northern lights. According to the legend, a mysterious, grisly old man would appear unannounced in the night carrying with him a black fiddle and would come knocking on the door. If the unsuspecting family allowed him entrance, he would begin to play. As the stranger began to play, the Aurora Borealis would appear in the sky and the more frantic the music became, the more brilliant the ethereal lights would flash, until as quickly as he had come, the fiddler would disappear again into the night.

The Fiddler of the Northern Lights was the last piece James Spencer ever composed. After his death, Hildreth and her mother decided to allow the Detroit Public Library to house his compositions in the Burton Historical Collection, but elected to retain his last, feeling that it would not live up to his normal standards due to the fact that Spencer was dying of prostate cancer at the time of its composition.

However, sometime after her father’s death, Hildreth Spencer brought the work to the attention of a Dr. Poole, a staff conductor for the Detroit Symphony, who pronounced the piece workable after viewing it. After holding back the score for over 50 years, Hildreth brought the manuscript to Adrian Symphony Orchestra Music Director John Thomas Dodson, who then prepared a performing version of the work for tonight’s premiere. The Fiddler of the Northern Lights, then, is the last fantastic tale told in music by James Houston Spencer, the father of our new building.

According to a 1928 article in the Malone Farmer, Spencer took music lessons from the Mother Superior of the Ursuline Convent in Malone, Rev. Mother Stanislaus, who also taught at St. Joseph's Academy. 

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