The American composer and pianist, William Mason, was am member of a musical family. His father was the composer and music pedagogue Lowell Mason, a leading figure in American church music. William's younger brother, Henry Mason (1831-1890), was a co-founder of the piano manufacturers Mason and Hamlin. His nephew, Daniel Gregory Mason (1873-1953), achieved distinction as a composer, author, and professor of music at Columbia University.
William Mason was the third of four sons born to Lowell and Abigail Mason. Although William showed an early proclivity towards music, he was not strongly encouraged by his parents to develop his talent, partly owing to his fatherís desire that he opt for a career in the clergy.Nevertheless, around 1845, William began productive piano study with Henry Schmidt at the Boston Academy of Music, while also composing and publishing his first pieces for the piano, Deux Romances sans paroles, Op. 1. His successful professional debut came in 1846 at the Boston Academy of Music, with a performance of the Variations on the Air from Méhulís ďJoseph,Ē Op. 20, by Henri Herz, for piano with string quintet accompaniment.
In 1849, William Mason did what virtually every aspiring American composer and performer was expected to do: he immersed himself in rigorous European training. Mason set sail for Germany and the city of Bremen, to begin a period of piano study, which ultimately lasted for five years and took him to Leipzig, Prague, and Weimar. His considerable talent and abilities afforded him the privilege of concentrated instruction from legendary pianists and composers. In Leipzig he studied under Ignaz Moscheles, Moritz Hauptmann and Ernst Friedrich Eduard Richter; in Weimar under Franz Liszt (his first American student). He also studied with Alexander Dreyschock.
William Mason returned to the USA in 1854, his sights set on a career as a concert pianist. For a while, he succeeded admirably in building a reputation through several ambitious recital tours. Within a year, however, Mason became convinced that the life of a touring virtuoso, while rousing to the ego, was intellectually and musically unfruitful. He decided to relocate to New York City, his geographical center for the remainder of his life, and began a multi-faceted career of performing, teaching, and composing. Of special significance during this time was the formation of a chamber ensemble that included Mason and violinist Theodore Thomas. Over the next 13 years, the Mason-Thomas Quartette introduced many works of Robert Schumann and other famous Europeans to Americans during the Civil War era and beyond, at a time when classical music still had little specifically American identity. This ensemble presented many world and USA premieres, including that of Johannes Brahmsí Trio in B Major, Op. 8. In 1872 Mason received the degree of Mus.D. from Yale University.
Possibly more noteworthy than any of the aforementioned accomplishments, William Mason carved out an influential reputation as a piano pedagogue. In 1867, his first pedagogical work was published, A Method for the Piano-Forte, co-authored with E. S. Hoadly. Later notable titles would appear, among them, A System for Beginners in the Art of Playing upon the Piano-Forte (1871), A System of Technical Exercises for the Piano-Forte (1878), and Touch and Technic, Op. 44 (1891-1892). In addition to his publications, Mason held numerous posts that reflected his commitment to sound musical instruction for students of all ages, including the presidencies of the National Musical Congress and American Vocal Music Association, and membership on the board of piano examiners for the American College of Musicians. In 1901, Masonís illuminating autobiography Memories of a Musical Life was published in New York. It contains a valuable account of the Weimar circle in 1853. Thereafter, he maintained an active schedule as a teacher, working primarily from the studio in Steinway Hall that he had occupied since 1866. Following a brief illness, William Mason died at his home in New York City in 1908, at the age of 79.
William Masonís piano music is not only a product of his own substantial technical pedigree, but also a reflection of that period of American music when it was fashionable - even advisable - to imitate European models. Almost without exception, his works favour a clear ABA structure and make no pretence toward weighty thematic development. They are simply a creation of their generation: unfailingly entertaining, colourful and, at times, intriguing ďsalonĒ pieces. In spite of this generalised qualities, Mason did not escape a subtle evolution in his own compositional approach to the piano, which, after all, spanned a full sixty years. Many of Masonís earliest published works, composed between 1849 and 1856, are born of the grand virtuoso style of the mid-nineteenth century. His exploitation of brilliant octaves, cadenza-like flourishes, extreme registers, and intricate arpeggio figuration reflect the influence of Franz Liszt and the great Austrian pianist Sigismond Thalberg, whom Mason heard and closely observed on many occasions. Following closely on the heels of Masonís decision to abandon a solo concert career was a discernible shift in his piano music towards a style somewhat more modest in scope. With few exceptions, Masonís compositions from the years from 1857 to 1890 are replete with the melodic poeticism and dance-like rhythms characteristic in many works of Chopin. Finally, Masonís late piano works, composed mainly between 1890 and 1905, resemble the more personal and complex idioms of Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann and Gabriel Fauré. All previous excesses are now stripped away, revealing the true sophistication of the mature master on which modern American pianism could find a native identity.
The American composer and pianist Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) dedicated his second piano sonata, Op. 50 Sonata Eroica (1895), to William Mason.