William Arms Fisher was born in San Francisco on 27 April, 1861 and died at Boston on 18 December, 1948. He was an American music editor and writer of music. He received his early musical training in Oakland, New York and London. Among his teachers were Horatio Parker and Antonín Dvořák. At the National Conservatory in New York City, Fisher studied composition with Dvořák and became his assistant when the faculty of that institution ranked with the greatest music schools in the world. He was Dvořák's favorite pupil and companion in America. On the night of the first performance of the From the New World Symphony, William Arms Fisher sat in a box with the master.* He studied along with the Black students who responded to the advertisement by The National Conservatory of Music of America extending a cordial invitation to Negroes in May of 1893.
Antonín Dvořák, according to his son Otakar's memory book,** was anxious for Black Americans to participate in his classes during the 4-year residency which began at the Conservatory in the fall of 1892. Dvořák was very aware of their exceptional musical talent and therefore fought very hard for them to be accepted.
On May 21, 1893, the New York Herald printed a controversial interview with Dvořák in which he stressed the importance of Black music for America, challenging American composers to make use of the wealth of original American material. Dvořák was the first musician of world stature to predict that the future of American music would be based on Black music. He was criticized by the press throughout the United States for expressing such a view. History would be the ultimate judge.
Dvořák also insisted that Blacks should participate in instrumental education and so to his credit, they finally played in the conservatory orchestra. Notable among these students were Harvey Loomis, Laura S. Collins, Rubin Goldmark, Harry Rowe Shelley, William Kinney, and J. Pinter. Harry T. Burleigh befriended Dvořák while studying at the school as well, although not Dvořák's student. The National Conservatory of Music of America in New York arranged concerts from the compositions composed by Dvořák's students. Each student had to conduct their own composition. These concerts were scheduled at the end of each year in 1893 and in 1894.
As a songwriter, Fisher accepted Dvořák's challenge and made settings of Negro spirituals, publishing one collection as Seventy Negro Spirituals (1926). Fisher's arrangement of the second movement of Dvořák's From the New World Symphony was a pseudo-spiritual with the text "Goin' Home" which became very popular and still continues to resonate in the hearts of all who experience it.
William Arms Fisher was one of America's earliest music historians recognizing the vitality and value of 18th and early 19th century American music. His publications listed in Grove's include Notes on Music in Old Boston (Boston, 1918), One Hundred and Fifty Years of Music Publishing in the United States (Boston, 1934), two historical anthologies, Ye Olde New-England Psalm Tunes 1620-1820 (Boston, 1930) and The Music that Washington Knew (Boston, 1931). He also wrote on Music Festivals in the United States (Boston, 1934) and edited several anthologies of Negro spirituals, Irish songs, etc.
Professionally, Fisher became the editor and director of publications for the Oliver Ditson Company in Boston in 1897, a company he served for 40 years. He was twice president of the Music Teachers National Association and for three years was president of the Music Publishers' National Association. In 1926, until his retirement in 1937, he was vice-president of the company which contributed much to music publishing in the United States, Oliver Ditson Company, acquired by Theodore Presser Co. in 1931.
Anita Smíšek, OP revised, October 14, 1999
* March 1949 Etude, from a memorial tribute by Dr. Cooke
** Information taken from pp 34-35 of Otakar Dvořák, Antonín Dvořák, My Father, edited by Paul J. Polansky, translated from Czech by Miroslav Nemec, 1993, The Czech Historical Research Center, Inc., Spillville, Iowa 52168-0183.