Charles Wakefield Cadman

Popular Composer and Performer of the early 20th Century

Charles Wakefield Cadman was a composer, pianist, organist, music journalist, ethnomusicologist.  His compositions include five operas, orchestral suites, chamber works, cantatas, piano works, violin works and over 250 popular songs.  He is best known for his “indianist” songs “At Dawning” and “From the Land of Sky-blue Water” which became popular in 1907.  Cadman’s 1918 opera “The Robin Woman” was the first American opera performed two seasons at the New York Metropolitan Opera and the first American opera with a libretto by a woman. In 1932 when Cadman’s opera “The Willow Tree” was broadcast on NBC it became the first American opera to written for a radio broadcast.  As a pianist Cadman performed as a soloist with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra that he helped to found.  He was hired by Fox Studios in 1920 to write film scores.  He wrote music for the movies Sky Hawk, Captain of the Guard, Women Everywhere, and Harmony at Home.  At the time he was considered one of Hollywood’s top composers along with Dmitri Tiomkin.  His best works are his chamber music compositions.  Cadman most noted work is that merged elements of Ragtime and American music with classical. music.  Music historians write that Cadman was a forerunner to Gershwin who merged jazz and classical music.

Charles Wakefield Cadman was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1881.  He was born into a musical family. His great-grandfather, Samuel Wakefield composed and published early-American sacred music, wrote a book on harmony, and built the first pipe organ west of the Alleghenies.  Charles studied piano at the age of thirteen and began writing songs.  He became a church organist in Johnston.   At age 17 he self-published his composition “The Carnegie Library March” and sold 6,000 copies of it going door to door.  He composed three operettas by the age of twenty.  Living in Pittsburgh in 1902 he began formal music studies. He learned harmony and theory from Leo Oehmler and studied orchestration with the Pittsburgh Symphony’s concert master Luigi von Kunits and its conductor Emil Paur.  Cadman began publish organ compositions and popular songs in 1904.  He began writing his first indianist songs in 1906.  To earn a living he held several postions.  He was the organist at the United Presbyterian Church in Homestead from 1907 to 1910.  He conducted the Pittsburgh Male Chorus in 1908.   From 1908 to 1910 Cadman was the music editor and music critic for the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper.

In 1902 Cadman met poet Nellie Richmond Eberhart who had moved to Homestead, Pa. with her family from Nebraska.  She had studied Native American music in Nebraska and interested Cadman in writing music based on Indian melodies.  Nellie became his life long lyricist collaborating with on opera librettos and about 200 songs.  Together they wrote their first four Indian songs and won a prize at the Carnegie Art Institute.  One of the songs, From the Land of the Sky-blue Water” was influenced by ethnologist Alice Fletcher’s book “Indian Story and Song.    From the Land of the Sky-blue Water” became nationally known when it was performed and recorded by soprano Lillian Nordica in 1909. Corresponding with Cadman Alice Fletcher urged him to visit the Omaha Indians in Nebraska to learn their music.  In Nebraska met Francis La Flesche, the son of a French trader and an Omaha woman.  Together in 1909 they traveled to Omaha and Winnebago reservations making cylinder recording of Native American Music for the Smithsonian Institute.  Cadman also learned to play the Native American instruments.  Writing articles and conducting lectures Cadman was one the foremost experts on Native American.  Cadman adapted Native American melodies into a nineteenth-century harmonic idiom and describe his work as “Idealization of Indian Music."  In 1909 Cadman most well known indianist song “At Dawning” was made famous by tenors John McCormack and Alessandro Bonci.  A million of copies of the sheet music were sold.  Music critics today harshly criticize Cadman’s indianist music.

“Cadman's music is characterized by its well constructed melodies and traditional harmonies and is inspired by Native American sources.  However, Cadman is clearly a member of the group of American composers, including Farwell and Gilbert, who have idealized Native American music and turned it into sentimental household music, robbing it of its ethnic character.” - Lynn Vought

Cadman toured America and Europe from 1909 to 1940 giving lecture-recitals on Native American music.  He toured with mezzo-soprano Tsianina Redfeather, a Cherokee-Creek princess between 1909 and 1916.  They performed in America cities, Paris and London attracting large audiences and winning highly-favorable reviews.  Cadman performed Indian melodies on the piano and with an Indian flageolet.  Princess Tsianina sang 18 of Cadman’s songs. In 1915   soprano Maggie Tetye, the most famous English singer of her generation gave performance of Cadman’s music in the United States and London.  She met Cadman in California formal professional and romantic.  But their relationship ended in 1916 as Tate did not want to give her tours to settle down in California.

Having achieved commercial success with his songs, tours, and concert performances Cadman devoted his time to writing series classical works. His Trio in D Major written in 1913, was hailed as the first American chamber work to use ragtime elements.  The Metropolitan Opera premiered his Native American opera Shanewis (The Robin Woman) on 23 March 1918.  It received twenty-two curtain calls on its first performance.  A was a historic American opera being the first opera staged with a contemporary American at the Met, the first American opera with a libretto written by a woman, Nellie Eberhart and the first American opera to be extended for two season at the Met.  Cadman and Eberhart’s "The Willow Tree" aired on NBC in 1932 was the first opera written for radio.  Their other operatic works include the cantata “The Sunset Trail” (1925) and the opera “A Witch of Salem” (1926). Other noted Cadman pieces are the “American Suite” for strings and  the “Thunderbird Suite” for piano.  Cadman’s popular “Dark Dancers of the Mardi Gras” written in 1933 was a stylistically advanced piece with ragtime syncopations and Gershwinesque melodies.

Cadman moved to Southern California in 1916 residing there when not on tour.  He joined the founding organization of the Hollywood Bowl, the Theater Arts Alliance, as a charter member in 1919. Cadman starred as the soloist at the Hollywood Bowl seven times in his career.  The Bowl held "Cadman Nights" devoted entirely to his music held during the seasons of 1922, 1923, and 1924.  In 1924 Cadman obtained a doctorate in music at the University of Southern California and became a USC music lecturer.  He also wrote from popular music journals such as Etude.  Living near Hollywood Cadman wrote scores for several silent films including “The Vanishing American” in 1925. He went under contract to the Fox Film Corporation in 1929 to compose music for talking pictures. He wrote scores for five films in 1929 and 1930. He left Fox in a dispute with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer composer Dmitri Tiomkin over motion picture music.  Cadman wanted music based on classical styles whereas Tiomkin's promoted a "popular jazz" approach.

The National Federation of Music Clubs voted Cadman the Most Popular American Composer of 1930. But 1930 was his peak year.  Cadman’s popularity declined in the 1930s as interest in “Indianist” music waned.  American composers Aaron Copland, Piston, and Harris became popular.  Cadman’s personal funds ran low as sales of his song decreased.  Cadman continued to write classical works, but critics ignored them stereotyping him as an "Indian melodies" composer.  Cadman was honored in 1935 when the California Pacific International Exposition in t San Diego declared 4th September “Cadman Day”.  In 1940 his Pennsylvania Symphony was premiered on national broadcast by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.  Cadman lived out his last years frugally at a Los Angeles hotel.  He died on 30th December, 1946.


From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water
Lillian Nordica

Maggie Teyte
American Classic