Mabel Wheeler Daniels (1877-1971)

July 1, 2012

Born in Swampscott, Massachusetts on November 27, 1877, Mabel Wheeler Daniels was a composer and musician.
Mabel Wheeler Daniels was born to a talented family of eclectic careers: both of her grandfathers were church organists; members of her father’s family ranged from jewelers to circus producers; and her father was a shoe manufacturer and president of the Boston Boot and Shoe Club. Ten members of the Daniels family were highly active in the Handel and Haydn Society, with her father serving as both director and president. With such creative heritage, it is no surprise that Daniels displayed musical talent from an early age. Witnessing her father sing Verdi’s Requiem with the Handel and Haydn Society made a lasting impression on her and inspired her to begin piano lessons.

Daniels entered Radcliffe College and decided to pursue a career in music. Upon graduating magna cum laude in 1900, she studied orchestration with noted composer and teacher George Whitefield Chadwick at the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1902 she traveled abroad to study at the Royal Conservatory of Munich – the first woman ever to attend the school. Her experiences were published by the prestigious Little, Brown & Company in An American Girl in Munich: Impressions of a Music Student (1905).

Daniels spent the following years in Boston serving as director of the Radcliffe Glee Club, music director at Bradford Academy (1911-13), and music director at Simmons College (1913-18). She spent 24 formative summers at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, composing music and gleaning inspiration from the other musicians, artists, and writers who gathered in the community. The Colony supported the first performance of The Desolate City, one of Daniels’ most popular cantatas, at the MacDowell Festival in 1913.

Daniels received many honors throughout her career: she was the only female composer to have three works performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra; she received two prizes from the National Federation of Music Clubs (1911 and 1913); she was the only female composer represented at the Carnegie Hall Festival in 1939; and she was the only woman among thirty-one composers recorded by the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch. In addition to receiving several honorary degrees, she was also the recipient of the Radcliffe College Founders Award in 1965.

Randall Thompson (Lot 8488 Azalea Path) praised Daniels as one of America’s finest composers. Her work displayed a German and French Impressionist style considered modern and “cautiously experimental.” Daniels believed that in addition to talent a composer needed four qualities: a strong constitution, perseverance, ingenuity, and a lot of courage. While Daniels never self-identified as a feminist, she did believe in women’s suffrage and once wrote: “What difference whether [a piece is] written by a man or a women or a Hottentot or a Unitarian.”

Daniels generously supported Radcliffe College, Tufts University, and the New England Conservatory of Music to promote their music programs and provide scholarships to promising young musicians. She died of pneumonia in 1971 in Cambridge and is buried near her parents. Her papers, including unpublished memoirs, correspondence, reviews, interviews with the press, musical scores, and a complete publication list of her compositions, reside in the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe.

Mabel Wheeler Daniels is buried at Mount Auburn in Lot 6049 Caltha Path.

Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson and Laura Gosman, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: Mabel Wheeler Daniels, 2001.


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