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John Knowles Paine: Attainment and Legacy

The Loeb Music Library’s latest exhibit showcases the life and work of 19th-century composer and Harvard University’s first professor of music John Knowles Paine.


musical scoreNovember 18, 2014—In honor of the centennial anniversary of Paine Hall, the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library centered its latest exhibition around the life and times of the man behind the building’s name, Harvard University’s first professor of music and pioneer of American music education, John Knowles Paine.

Paine was well-known in his day as an organist and composer, but his lasting influence has been as an educator. “The study of music as an academic discipline in a liberal arts curriculum essentially originated with Paine,” explained curator Bob Dennis.

Paine’s curriculum at Harvard focused on music history and theory as well as composition, which then served as a model for the rest of the country. See the slideshow (below) for more on his life and works.


musical score

Born in 1839, the Portland, Maine native acquired an impeccable musical pedigree from study with respected European musicians, but was a man of many firsts in American music, including becoming the first American composer to publish a symphony. “He was the first American-born composer to achieve fame for large-scale compositions, particularly in Europe,” explained Dennis.

Paine at home

Paine was well known in popular culture in his day, reaching a zenith in the 1870s and 1880s, when his works were regularly performed by prestigious orchestral groups like the Boston Symphony.


Family scrapbooks are among the Loeb’s Paine holdings, documenting the progression of his career in extraordinary detail. Above, an 1858 benefit concert program; from these, he raised funds to study organ, composition and orchestration in Europe.

choir book

After his studies in Europe, Paine settled in Boston and began working at Harvard as an organist and choirmaster at Harvard’s Appleton Chapel in 1862.

playbill for Oedipus Tyrranus

Paine composed and conducted incidental music for a production by Harvard students and faculty of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrranus in 1881; the production was the social and cultural event of the season, attracting contemporary luminaries like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Julia Ward Howe.

Paine at the shore

During his 43-year career at Harvard, he coached many future composers, music critics and music lovers. Here, Paine is shown in 1878 at an annual summer retreat on the Isle of Shoals on the New England coast.

pain portrait on a stand

There has been a renaissance of interest in Paine; American conductor JoAnn Falletta is currently recording Paine’s complete orchestral works. In addition to Harvard’s concert hall and the musical community he established, his passion and legacy lives on at the University through the John Knowles Paine Fellowships in Music, established in 1912.