The Indianist movement was a movement in American classical music that flourished from the 1880s until the 1920s. It was based on attempts to synthesize American Indian musical ideas with some of the basic principles of Western music. Chief practitioners of the form included Charles Sanford Skilton, Arthur Nevin, Arthur Farwell, and Charles Wakefield Cadman; many other composers were also involved in the craze at various points throughout their careers. In his book Imagining Native America in Music Michael Pisani argues that there was no such thing as an "Indianist" movement in American music, but that American composers' borrowing melodies of native America (beginning around 1890) was simply one part of a larger interest in the use of folk musics of all ethnicities on American soil. (A similar interest can be found in the work of several classical composers of Central and South America at this time as well.)
The Indianist movement could trace its roots to certain trends in nineteenth-century American Romanticism, although its musical roots go back much earlier; examples of music on "Indian" themes can be found dating back to the early years of the seventeenth century, and stories relating to the conquest of the Americas were popular with composers through the late eighteenth century as well. It bears many similarities with the cult of the noble savage, espoused by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Edwin Forrest, too, influenced the movement with his star performance in the play Metamora. At least one composer, Anthony Philip Heinrich, a contemporary of these artists, is recorded as having spent some time among the Indians on the American frontiers; he was also the first to set Longfellow's Hiawatha to music. He did not, however, use Indian musical themes in his work.
Beginnings of the movement
With the rise in studies both in ethnology and in folklore later in the nineteenth century, much information was gleaned and collected about various American Indian cultures. In 1880 Theodore Baker transcribed songs from a number of tribes, publishing them two years later in a German-language dissertation for his doctorate from the University of Leipzig. Edward MacDowell borrowed themes from Baker's work when composing his Second (Indian) Suite for orchestra in 1894. Further impetus came with the arrival, in 1892, of Antonín Dvořák to teach in New York City. He exhorted American composers to stop imitating European models, and to turn instead to indigenous sources. Composer Frederick Burton took the idea to heart, and transcribed some Ojibway melodies which he later turned into art songs. Later work by ethnographers and musicologists helped to build a body of notated music by Indians, and this aided some composers in searching for musical sources. Some, such as Carlos Troyer, notated their source material themselves in an attempt to be as authentic as possible. Others, such as Harvey Worthington Loomis, borrowed from already-published sources. Charles Sanford Skilton was probably the composer who did most to establish the stereotypes of the genre, with pieces such as his Suite Primeval for orchestra.
Opera composers, too, attempted to use Indian themes in their work; among Indianist operas were Poia, by Arthur Nevin; Victor Herbert's Natoma; Kalopin and The Sun Bride by Charles Skilton; Alberto Bimboni's Winona; Francesco Bartolomeo de Leone's Alglala, and Shanewis, by Charles Wakefield Cadman, the only one of the group to have any measure of success. Even so, DeLeone, Bimboni and Skilton were awarded the Bispham Memorial Medal Award for their operas.
Arthur Farwell was perhaps the most important composer involved in the Indianist movement at the height of its influence. He professed interest in all forms of American music, "notably, ragtime, Negro songs, Indian songs, Cowboy songs, and, of the utmost importance, new and daring expressions of our own composers, sound-speech previously unheard."  He seemed, however, to show particular interest in American Indian music. Farwell was also the founder of the Wa-Wan Press, which did much to further the cause of Indianist music in America. As a composer, he chose not to view American Indian music as a novelty, viewing it instead as a profound source of inspiration for his work.
The Wa-Wan Press began losing subscribers around 1908, and folded in 1912 after being acquired by G. Schirmer. This coupled with the growing influence of jazz and popular music, and a lack of interest in Romanticism, to spell the end of the formal Indianist movement in music. Nevertheless, Indian subjects have continued to interest composers, both in the United States and abroad, through the end of the twentieth century and beyond.
Among the major Indianist composers were:
Composers who wrote works based on Indian themes, and who are sometimes grouped under the "Indianist" label, include:
Notes and references
- "The "Indianist" Movement in American Music" (PDF). BEACH, FOOTE, FARWELL, OREM. New World Records. 2008-08-12.
- "A Chronological Listing of Musical Works on American indian Subjects, Composed Since 1608". A Chronological Listing of Musical Works on American indian Subjects, Composed Since 1608. Michael Pisani. 2008-08-12.
- Howard, John Tasker (1939). Our American Music: Three Hundred Years of It. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
- The Library of Congress (February 1, 2007). "Biography: Arthur Farwell, 1872-1952: The Library of Congress Presents: Music, Theater and Dance". Retrieved on August 12, 2008.