Home Arts and Leisure John Sullivan Dwight, America’s First Music Critic and Last Transcendentalist

John Sullivan Dwight, America’s First Music Critic and Last Transcendentalist

He taught Boston about Beethoven

0 comment

The music critic John Sullivan Dwight (1813–1893) was perhaps the most consequential American musical authority in the nineteenth century. In his own day he was recognized as not only a perceptive writer, but—for his passionate writing style in which music approaches religion—he was even branded the “Apostle of Music.” Dwight’s primary pulpit was his
eponymous Dwight’s Journal of Music: A Paper of Art and Literature. He founded the publication and edited it for nearly 30 years. Through the journal and important writings elsewhere, he also carried forth the flame of Transcendentalism.

John Sullivan Dwight

A Bostonian, Dwight was born the midst of the War of 1812, the scion of an old and respected New England family. The first Dwights arrived in the mid-1630s. John Sullivan Dwight belonged to the branch that settled in Shirley, Mass., a musically enlightened town by the day’s standard. His parents enjoyed an early exposure to music, which deeply affected
Dwight and his siblings. The fascination with music was enhanced by their residence in Boston’s Court Street, a cultural beehive.

Court Street in the 1850s

John Sullivan Dwight

After schooling at the historic Boston Latin School, Dwight matriculated to Harvard University. There he read constantly and immersed himself in his studies. Dwight was intensely attracted to German language and culture, the interest in which was then surging in American intellectual circles. In addition to academics, Harvard had an underground network of music enthusiasts. Although not officially sanctioned, music contributed substantially to the life of the university. Dwight learned to play several wind instruments and led Harvard’s fledgling music clubs, the Arionic Society and the Pierian Sodality. It was also during his term at Harvard that the young Dwight began writing about music.

George Ripley

Dwight began making a number of freethinking acquaintances. He was especially influenced by his friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson and was caught up in the flowering of New England Transcendentalism. Dwight also forged a relationship with George Ripley, a pivotal figure in the Transcendental movement. Ripley encouraged his young colleague to contribute to a literary series he had founded. Dwight’s masterful Select Minor Poems translated from the German of Goethe and Schiller appeared in 1839. No less an authority than Thomas Carlyle wrote, “No Englishman, to my knowledge, has uttered as much sense about Goethe and German things,” as had Dwight.

Brook Farm

Dwight preached briefly in Northampton and wrote several articles for The Dial (1840-1844), an organ designed to spread the gospel of Transcendentalism. Having few professional prospects, he eventually settled at the socialist-utopian community of Brook Farm, eight miles outside Boston. Brook Farm attracted all sorts of personalities. John Codman, a resident, claimed there could be found “some of all religions; bond and free; transcendental and occidental; antislavery and proslavery; come-outers, communists, fruitists and flutists; dreamers and schemers of all sorts.”

Brook Farm today

Part of Brook Farm’s allure were the arts,  a vital component of its educational project. Moreover, the arts were considered essential to the Farm’s success, for they provided enjoyment, moral uplift and kept boredom at bay. An activist on behalf of art, Dwight was appointed lead organizer of the Farm’s entertainments and bestowed the title “Chief of the Festal Series.” Many of the activities involved music, and Dwight’s tastes were clear. He emphasized lots of homegrown performances, a sternly classical repertoire and the occasional guest artist.

The Harbinger

Having written for several magazines and newspapers, Dwight had already acquired a modicum of journalism experience. But his ascendant literary fortunes improved substantially when Brook Farm launched The Harbinger. A weekly newspaper “devoted to social and political progress,” it addressed timely social issues. Its contents included a hefty section on music, including concert and book reviews, assessments of newly printed music, feature articles and biographical sketches. Beethoven was a topic of especial interest, and Dwight was eager to share with curious Bostonians the personal odyssey of Beethoven. His music,  the critic believed, laid bare the composer’s inner self. At a time in America when not much was known about Beethoven, Dwight made an early case for his greatness.

The Harbinger was principally a conveyance for a variety of Transcendentalist thought that throughout the 1840s had become increasingly dogmatic. In its early manifestation, Transcendentalism was reflective and pastoral. But as it began to be organized and called Association, its tendencies were more rule-bound. And it had an even more militant relative called Fourierism, after the French social philosopher, Charles Fourier.

As Dwight’s career as a music critic progressed, he was also writing and translating in defense of Association and Fourierism. His translations of Fourier’s often bizarre theories of social organization captured a huge amount of Dwight’s time.


Once Brook Farm collapsed, Dwight, still professionally unsettled, wrote for The Chronotype, a Free Soil newspaper that took on women’s rights, temperance and other pressing issues. Dwight did not forsake long-form essays, one of which was his Transcendentalist article “Music.” It appeared in Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s groundbreaking publication, Aesthetic Papers. Dwight also contributed to Sartain’s Magazine and Graham’s Magazine, two popular, widely circulated periodicals for which he adapted his critical style to a general audience. Both magazines included notated music. Dwight, as music editor, reshaped the repertoire to reflect a more elevated classical style.

Tired of answering to others, Dwight founded his own Dwight’s Journal of Music in 1852. Although there has long been a certain romanticism that accompanies the notion that Dwight founded the Journal out of desperation, that perception belies two characteristics that he possessed in abundance: a spirit of entrepreneurialism and the ability to spot a business

Boston Music Hall

Dwight’s Journal of Music

The Journal appeared just as Boston’s new Music Hall opened. Concert halls were to Dwight what the woods were to Henry David Thoreau. The venue promised many performances he could write about for a growing Boston audience for fine music. His business was founded on the idea that those audiences would want to read about what they heard. Within Dwight’s small circle of friends and supporters, Dwight’s Journal was an immediate hit. Others, however, implored Dwight to banish from its pages “German mysticism and Boston transcendentalism.”

If Dwight’s Journal managed to survive persistent financial struggles, competition proved a more formidable foe. The Civil War created a revolution in the newspaper business. When the conflict ended the publication of concert reviews and other music-related news soared. The rise of newspapers and music criticism in Boston negatively impacted Dwight’s Journal. Aa public feud with his arch-nemesis Benjamin Edward Woolf, of the Saturday Evening Gazette, only exposed cracks in Dwight’s music-critical hegemony. Dwight’s Journal of Music, a consistent and reliable arbiter of musical taste for just short of 30 years, breathed its last with the issue of Sept. 3, 1881.

Music History

When the Journal folded, Dwight set about becoming Boston’s most formidable music historian. He did it through his contributions to The Memorial History of Boston in 1881 and the significant History of the Handel and Haydn Society. He also returned to magazine essays with a rumination on early music in New England titled “Our Dark Age in Music.”  And he wrote major articles on George Frederick Handel and J. S. Bach.

Dwight’s article “Common Sense” (1890) is his final apologia on behalf of Transcendentalism. In its 30 pages, he rails against the “metaphysical and moral systems [that] spring up like the successive or alternate growths in forests.” Dwight, echoing complaints that the aged have sounded since time immemorial, shrank from the latest “strange philosophies,” “dreamy theories,” and “radical and startling innovations.” He urged the return to Transcendentalism, which he couched here as good old-fashioned Common Sense.

A Last Crack for John Sullivan Dwight

The venerable Boston Evening Transcript gave Dwight one more significant crack at music criticism. In a span of nine months, from October 1890 to June 1891, Dwight produced at least 59 columns, many of which show him at his most perceptive. After a pause of nearly a decade, Dwight returned to the field of regular music criticism with a vengeance, crafting articles about local musicians and musical institutions, and concert reviews of the increasingly beloved
Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Boston Symphony Orchestra at Boston Music Hall in 1891

Over the course of five decades, Dwight persistently and passionately brought to America’s nascent musical public insightful commentary on composers, musicians, and compositions, and he did it in a language comprised of equal parts German Romanticism and Emersonian Transcendentalism. His reputation as America’s first great music critic has unfortunately overshadowed his important role as the last Transcendentalist.

This book situates John Sullivan Dwight’s story in its nineteenth century and Transcendental contexts and provides the first thorough account of music and the arts at Brook Farm. Dwight’s enormous body of essays, reviews, translations, correspondence, and other various writings are illuminated in this biography and reveal the indelible influence Dwight’s Journal had on music criticism–the impacts of which resonate today. (Click book image to buy from Amazon.)

Bill F. Faucett has written extensively on music in Boston.  His books include George Whitefield Chadwick: The Life and Music of the Pride of New England (Northeastern University Press, 2012), Music in Boston: Composers, Events, and Ideas, 1852-1918 (Lexington Books, 2016), among others.  Faucett, a musicologist and arts administrator, lives in Tampa, Fla.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!