Music in Early America Part 1

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1 Music in Early America Part 1 When the first settlers of the United States came from England and other countries in Europe they brought with them a love of music making, just as people enjoy playing music and listening to music today. The early settlers of colonial America played music in their homes, listened to music at concerts, sang in their places of worship, and danced to it. Playing music at home was a very popular activity in early America. Musical instruments of many kinds were brought to this country including the harpsichord (which is a predecessor of the piano), violins, flutes, and other wind instruments. During the time of the American Revolution, Americans played music at home by the most popular composers in Europe including Handel, Haydn, and Mozart. Most of the music played at home was written for keyboard, sometimes with a violin or flute playing along. Young women and girls from an early age were encouraged to learn the harpsichord or piano as it was considered an important skill and a way to attract a good husband. Musical skill was also considered desirable for gentlemen, who often learned to play the violin or flute. This is made clear in a letter that our country s second president John Adams sent from Philadelphia to to his wife Abigail in Even while America fought for independence, John Adams wanted his sons to study music. He wrote to his wife Abigail that early youth is the time to learn arts and sciences, and especially to correct the ear... Music is a great advantage, for style depends in part upon a delicate ear. One of the most famous musical families in early America was that of Thomas Jefferson, our nation's third President. Jefferson loved to play the violin. He started at an early age and played most of his life. Music was an important part of his relationship with his wife Martha, and his daughters all received lessons on the harpsichord and in 1

2 singing. Jefferson collected a large amount of sheet music to play from. Most of his collection is still in existence so we know exactly what his family liked to play. Jefferson also played music with his friends, some of whom were very important people in the history of the United States. These included his violin playing partner Patrick Henry who was a governor of Virginia, and Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who wrote some very beautiful songs that Jefferson's daughters loved to sing. Hopkinson gave Jefferson s daughter Patsy a copy of his song collection, calling her attention to the very sad last song the Traveler benighted and lost. Jefferson wrote that it made his youngest daughter Polly cry when Patsy sang it. Another famous person involved with music was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was an important statesman, ambassador, and the first Postmaster General. He was also an enthusiastic inventor. Franklin invented an instrument called the glass harmonica. Have you ever moistened your finger and rubbed it on the rim of the glass to make a ringing sound? Franklin's instrument operates on this principle. It consists of multiple glasses nested together and held horizontally on a rod that turns so that multiple glasses could be played together with moistened fingers. His instrument became very popular and many famous composers wrote music for it, including Mozart. Franklin also wrote a quartet for violins and cello in which all the instruments are tuned in unusual ways. 2

3 Part 2 Another way that early Americans enjoyed music was by going to concerts. Back in colonial times this country did not have big spaces for concerts like Symphony Hall or the Boston Garden, so the first concerts were held in dancing schools or people s houses. The musicians that put on these concerts would have been the local music and dancing teachers, and they performed the most popular music from Europe. During the American Revolution, concerts were forbidden because people wanted to focus their attention on the war, and gathering large groups of people together would have been dangerous for security. Soon after the Revolutionary War, there was a renewed interest in putting on concerts. Theater productions that included music were also popular. During this time, many more musicians immigrated to the United States and were kept very busy by the growing cultural life in the large cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and elsewhere. The most popular composer that was performed at these concerts was Joseph Haydn, the most famous composer of the time. He composed pieces for orchestra called symphonies. In the concerts of the early United States these symphonies were very often played at the beginnings and ends of the performances. The performers of these early concerts did not just play music from far-away Europe. Many performers were composers who performed their own music. Some of the best early American composers were from Philadelphia and included the pianists Benjamin Carr and Alexander Reinagle, and the organists Raynor Taylor and John Christopher Moller. Some of these composers became publishers of music and printed sheet music for families to buy and play at home. 3

4 Part 3 An important way music touched the lives of everyone was through dancing. Dancing was considered a very important skill for everyone to have. This was because people wanted to move and present themselves as elegantly and gracefully as possible, and the movements of dancing taught this best. Besides, it is great exercise! Our nation s first President, George Washington was a very good dancer. Many of this country s first music teachers were also dancing teachers, and a lot of the music written during this time was written for dancing. One of the most popular types of dances was the minuet, which is an elegant dance in triple meter time. This means that the steps would be counted 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, over and over. During this time people loved to participate in fancy dance parties called balls. Every ball began with a minuet dance. The minuet was mostly danced by couples, and at these balls the couples could show off their skill and elegance to those watching. Another type of dance that allowed everyone to participate at the same time was called an English country dance. For these dances people formed two long lines facing each other and gradually moved through the room, eventually dancing with every person in the opposite line. This is similar to dances that are done at today s square dance gatherings. George Washington's step-grandson described our first president's dancing at a victory ball shortly after the American Revolution was over. He wrote: It was on this festive occasion that General Washington danced a minuet with Mrs. Willis... The minuet was much in vogue at that period, and was particularly calculated for the display of the splendid figure of the chief, and his natural grace and elegance of air and manners... As the evening advanced, the commander-in-chief yielding to the general gaiety of the scene, went down some dozen couples in the contre dance with great spirit and satisfaction. Soon after the war had ended, many dances were written in George Washington's honor 4

5 and many dances were named after him. In fact, there were so many dances dedicated to him that most of the important events in his life were documented by dance. 5

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