Fanny Snow Knowlton
(1859–1926), who grew up in Brecksville and studied violin under
Johann Beck, became nationally known for her oratorios, part songs and sacred solos. Notable among them: The Mermaid, a cantata (set to a text by Tennyson) for three women’s voices; Hawthorn and Lavender, a song-cycle for women’s voices; The Costume Box, an operetta for women; and Nature Songs for Children (1898)—no fewer than 13 editions of which were published between 1898 and 2017.
Her shorter compositions of note include Annabel Lee, a solo for baritone set to the words of Edgar Allan Poe (available from worldcat.org); her setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” called A Day; and what one contemporary critic described as “many exquisite little rondos, preludes, and songs without words.”
Brainard’s Musical World called two of Knowlton’s songs, Last Night I Heard a Bird Singing and There! Little Girl, Don’t Cry! (to words by James Whitcomb Riley), “perfect little gems.” Another favorite was her song, The Grapevine Swing. Her 1919 setting of a passage from Isaiah, Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace, won praise from Musical America. Columbia University sought the rights to her Patriotic Hymn.
Knowlton’s compositions “place her in the artistic society,” wrote one critic, “of our best male composers” and “high,” said another, “among American composers.” (Photo courtesy of Priscilla Juvelis Rare Books)
Writing of the premiere performance of Hawthorn and Lavender, the distinguished music critic Wilson G. Smith said the work firmly placed Knowlton “in the first rank of the women composers of this country. . . In fact it places her in the artistic society of our best male composers and will do much to establish her fame as a highly gifted woman.” The Los Angeles Herald reported that a performance there of the same work was “greatly enjoyed.” “The music is marked by a true melodic flow,” wrote another eminent critic, Dudley P. Buck, and showed, he said, “a depth of inspiration rarely found . . . while the beautiful waltz movement at the end leaves the listener charmed.”
Knowlton’s Nature Songs—which one critic pithily summarized as “tales of wood and bird and bee set to beautiful, rhythmic sound”—found “enthusiastic audiences” in Akron, Chicago, Chautauqua and New York. “If the Western Reserve has long been proud of the famous men and women of the past,” said The Cleveland Leader, “it should not fail to recognize and appreciate rare talent when it presents itself. Among the composers whose name has carried fame east and west must now be placed the name of Fanny Snow Knowlton.” She had earned a place, said the reviewer, “high among the American composers.”
Composer Margaret Brouwer, formerly head of the Cleveland Institute of Music’s composition program, believes Knowlton deserves a contemporary hearing. The scores of several of her compositions, including Songs of Other Days, Hawthorn and Lavender, The Mermaid, The Costume Box and Nature Songs for Children, are available at the Cleveland Public Library; also, along with other Knowlton songs and Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace, from WorldCat member libraries.
An interesting footnote: Fanny’s son Don Knowlton (1892–1976), who attended Lincoln West High School and Western Reserve University and played banjo with a jazz band, wrote one of the first serious discussions of jazz as an American art form in a 1926 article for Harper’s magazine entitled “The Anatomy of Jazz.”