Music composition, publication, and performance in the United States during the antebellum period developed and expanded from localized practices to a recognized and influential national culture, aided by the rise of new technologies in printing, manufacturing, and commercial distribution. Following the wars for independence from Britain, individual states retained their strongly differentiated ethnic and religious populations, but by the end of the Civil Warespite the divide between North and Southecognizably "American" forms of music not only spanned geographic expanses but also had even begun to represent the United States abroad.
Music was always heard live, and was thus ephemeral. Other than the barrel organ and music box, no sound machines existed until late in the century (Thomas Edison patented his "talking machine" in 1877). For most Americans music was ubiquitous and casual, performed or encountered in the homes of their family and friends, at school, and in public venues and commercial establishments. Musicians and patrons employed music for different reasons in those spheresor entertainment, moral training, and solace within the home, or as an essential component of the curricula of female seminaries intended to mold middle-class mothers, for example. Vocal and piano skills were highly prized and families brought music teachers into their homes to train their daughters. Music was more than household entertainment. It was a medium for instilling social and ethical values.
In all its genres, music reflected the issues to which American writers were also responding and musicians drew on literature as a source of text and merged the two arts to create public and private performances. At the same time, writersspecially poets and journalistsesponded to the sounds around them. Walt Whitman (1819892) most famously echoed the rough voices of everyday life in "I Hear America Singing" (1860), and no other American poet's works have been set to music more often by later songwriters who are attracted by his American imagery as well as his "rhythmic elasticity" (Sullivan, p. 97). Whitman was opera critic for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1840s and 1850s and his poems abound with musical references. His Drum-Taps (1865) "bridges the gap between written and aural modes of representation" (Picker, p. 2). Edgar Allan Poe (1809849) employed musical sounds, not only in his poems but also as evocative imagery in his stories. His 1846 essay "The Philosophy of Composition," was a manifesto for authors and contemporary American composers.
Only since the 1970s have scholars turned their attention to the music of this era, in contrast to the relatively abundant scholarship on novels, poetry, short stories, and other forms of literature. Whereas the writings of Poe and of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896), for example, have prompted symposia, monographs, and articles from all perspectives, very few studies exist for comparable figures in music. One reason is that until the 1990s few libraries catalogued their collections of antebellum music and fewer still have assembled accessible archival collections.
From the beginning of European settlement in North America, music was a useful art, and the first book published in the English-speaking colonies was the Bay Psalm Book (1640) for singing sacred texts. In 1789 the new constitution established the legal concept of copyright that included music as a form of literature, and music publications were an important if small sector of the nation's early publications. When Congress reestablished its library after the War of 1812 by purchasing Thomas Jefferson's collection in 1815, it acquired not only his books but also his music, undoubtedly the largest private library of music scores in the country.
As Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted in Democracy in America, America lacked institutions. In 1820 there were few ongoing groups dedicated to presenting music to the public. But there was no shortage of musicians, and America presented a new market, especially for Europe's concert and theatrical composers and performers. Music traveled quickly with the touring musicians, and its styles and texts came to unify the nation to some extent. Some of those touring musicians adopted American ideals into their repertories and carried them abroad, representing America in other parts of the world, particularly the port cities of Europe and Asia frequented by travelers. In the 1840s minstrel performers began taking their shows to London and Glasgow and sheet-music imprints show that the songs caught on quickly there. Popular songs, especially those by Stephen Foster (1826864), were carried abroad where they were heard as something new, familiar inasmuch as they retained elements from Old World practices, but original and distinctly American.
Oral literature in the unwritten traditions of immigrant cultures was known to all ethnic and economic classes of Americans, but because of its ad hoc nature it went largely unremarked and left almost no documented descriptions. Published music, however, constitutes the largest genre of printed literature extant from the period. Twenty-four percent of all copyright deposits in the nineteenth century (more than 400,000 items) were music.
Vocal music was practiced in both the sacred and secular realms of American society. Protestant hymnody, which had dominated eighteenth-century American composers' output, flourished anew, fed on the one hand by the rural camp-meeting revivalist movement that simplified and intensified the redemptory imagery of Isaac Watts's hymns, and on the other by reform impulses in the established urban churches. American hymnody in the 1820s through the 1850s, like the theological and public education movements to which it was tied, vividly reflects the grassroots passions and the top-down strictures that had become apparent in political and social discourse.
Lowell Mason (1792872), a bank clerk turned hymnist, joined with the foremost purveyor of European classical artistic standards in America in 1822 to publish the Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music, launching a new era of sacred-music enterprise. The book and its successors made both Mason and the Society wealthy and became the prototype for countless other songbooks both sacred and pedagogical.
If Mason helped shape a taste for high-church hymnody modeled on British hymnists and German oratorio, the blind poet Fanny Crosby (1820915) more than any other author fused the spirit of camp-meeting hymnody and revivalism with popular melody. As a girl she sang popular songs, accompanying herself on guitar; as an adult she was credited with writing more than nine thousand hymns, spurring publishers to issue inexpensive hymnbooks for Sunday schools and revivalist meetings and providing a model for gospel hymnody, most notably that of Dwight Moody (1837899) and Ira David Sankey (1840908) after the Civil War.
The lyrics of popular secular songs constitute a significant printed literature. By 1870 the number of songs registered for copyright each year approached the number of books. The songs' musical styles throughout the century contrast classical (often Italianate and opera-influenced) style with ethnic or national elements but the textual influences are far wider. The musicologist Jon Finson distinguishes among several strains: early songs of romance, still bearing British genteel traits; the plethora of lyrics on loss and death in mid-century; and the growing fascination with transportation and communications after the Civil War. Throughout the century songs articulated varying views of ethnicity (representations of American Indians and Western European immigrants) and race (stereotypes became more hard-edged during Reconstruction). Dale Cockrell has shown that the origins of the racial characterizations lie in the antebellum urban literature (both printed and performed) about social class struggles, popularized particularly through the rise of blackface minstrelsy.
One songwriter who stood at the juncture of these themesomance, loss, technology, ethnic representation, and classas Stephen Foster, who was the first American songwriter to rely on public sales of his songs for his livelihood. His first published song (at the age of eighteen) was "Open Thy Lattice Love" (1844) on a poem by the American poet and journalist George Pope Morris (1802864), a quintessential idealization of the distant object of desire, unapproachable except through music. Foster's first hit, "Oh! Susanna" (1847), with his own lyrics, contrasts the dangerously destructive power of electricity (the telegraph) and steam (riverboats and railroad engines) with white Americans' preoccupations with love, entertainment, and travel. Foster sharpened the irony by putting a banjo on his singer's knee and setting his words to a polka, the latest social-dance fashion just arrived from Europe.
Foster grew up in Scots-Irish genteel society in Pittsburgh, the urban industrial north. His representation of the South and southerners was entirely imagined, distilled from stories in nationally distributed domestic magazines to which his mother subscribed. Foster also drew on the first-person accounts of the bonded African American servants and laborers around the Foster household, of his mother, who grew up on a plantation in Maryland, and his father and next-older brother, both of whom participated in commercial trade along the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Foster wrote only two dozen songs about the South, all for minstrel performers, and it is largely those songs that sustained him financially, even though he wrote more than 280 songs, hymns, piano pieces, dances, and arrangements before his death in 1864.
His lyrics and music of love and loss, such as "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "Gentle Annie," and "Beautiful Dreamer," which continue to epitomize antebellum sentimentality for the general public in the twenty-first century, were relative financial failures during Foster's lifetime. Public sales depended on mass media, yet Foster declined to promote himself or his music. Radio and television revived his sentimental songs in the twentieth century, but during his lifetime it was the theaternd in particular the minstrel stagehat brought his songs before the public.
As popular culture developed in the United States, the theater held a central role as the forum through which ideas, phrases, iconic characters, and music were introduced. Nearly all theater involved music, from the single violin in traveling tent shows to the pit orchestras that offered preshow selections, entr'acte music, and scene music underscoring action, songs, and ballets during productions at the largest urban theaters.
Following the practice in productions of Shakespeare, many of the plays presented on American stages included songs, usually interpolated to suit the mood, but sometimes freshly composed for the occasion by the theater musicians. The newly written songs often distilled the essence of a character, as for example the "Hot Corn Girl" from the play of the same name (1853), a tearfully emotional depiction of the starving urchin that became iconic for the urban social welfare movement.
Even the strictly dramatic theaters had musical directors. Wallack's Theatre in New York, for example, engaged the city's foremost theater conductors, who hired the musicians, led the pit orchestra during performances, and chose or wrote the music for each production.
Americans created theatrical works across a full range of genres from plays with inserted incidental music and songs to grand operaith completely original libretti and music. The plays were easier to create and cheaper to produce; they were thus the most ubiquitous. Among composers, John Hill Hewitt (1801890) perhaps best represents the full array in his eight works for the stage written between 1838 and 1879, ranging from plays to operettas. The editors of his collected works note that "he considered himself an artistic littérateur as well as composer [and] wrote his own lyrics and dialogue"(p. xviii).
The musical practices of underscoring dramatic scenesn essential part of film and television in the twentieth centuryere well established by the 1820s. Romance dramas adapted from novels were popular throughout the period. Many were staged as melodramas, plays in which music served both aesthetic and psychological functions in telling the story. Melodramas of Alexandre Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo (1844845) appeared in New York as early as 1848 and became central to the careers of such notable actors as Charles Fechter (during the 1860s and 1870s) and James O'Neill (1880s on). Besides the usual theatrical overtures and entr'actes, the music for melodramas consisted of "melos," brief formulaic pieces timed to accompany the action of the script: sudden entrances, duels, poignant and untexted moments, and such cues as "hurry music" that accompanied chase scenes.
Theater and music helped shape public notions of ethnic difference. Melodramas on Indian themes appeared even before 1820. The musicologist Michael Pisani has identified at least thirty-five "Indian" plays with music that were performed between 1830 and 1850nd that was before the vogue generated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Through these dramatic representations, American culture formed a sort of musical portraiture of Indians and developed notions of nationalism and exoticism.
Antebellum minstrelsy was arguably the most widespread genre of musical theater. It began as performed discourse over class issues, employing ethnic difference to heighten the contrasts. As the music historians Jon Finson and Dale Cockrell describe it, minstrelsy arose from both European and African carnival and "misrule" ritual that involved masking. George Washington Dixon (c. 1801861) used the blackface urban dandy character "Zip Coon" with silk hat, watch fob, and effete prose, to comment on social injustice in Boston and New York. Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808860) portrayed the broken-down laborer in tatters, "Jim Crow." Through the 1840s minstrel performers such as George Christy (1827868) increasingly were known as "Ethiopian delineators" of stereotyped African American caricatures, and newspapers and magazines carried on a debate over the authenticity of their representations. The minstrel music and lyrics contained nothing from African American culture, beyond the instruments themselves. Not until Foster merged the sentimental parlor song with plantation themes in such songs as "Nelly Was a Lady" (1849), "Old Folks at Home" (1851), and "My Old Kentucky Home" (1852) did a new sympathetic and compassionate portrayal of slaves evolve, usually as the last segment of the minstrel show. These were the songs taken up by abolitionists, and they became mainstays of sympathetic black characters in the theater. As Frederick Douglass (1818895) told an abolitionist gathering in 1855,
It would seem almost absurd to say it, considering the use that has been made of them, that we have allies in the Ethiopian songs . . . "Old Kentucky Home," and "Uncle Ned," can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow and flourish. (P. 329)
It was not until after the war that audiences reinterpreted such antebellum songs as representing a mythical, rural past, a nostalgic utopia.
The literary work by far the most influential on American musical theater of the time was Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Within months of its publication in book form (1852) stage versions were produced in New England and soon thereafter in towns and by touring companies throughout the northern states. Many composers wrote songs for the "Tom shows," ranging from minstrel-inspired stereotypes in the wild Topsy dances to angelic evocations of Little Eva. As in melodrama, music was deemed essential to the pathos of the stage productions.
Opera, the most complex combination of music and theater, developed from the ballad operas popular in the British colonies. Immigrant composers and playwrights from England and Ireland supplied the earliest works. One of the first by an American-born author and composer was The Saw Mill (first staged in New York City, 1824) by Micah Hawkins (1777825), on a theme of the American frontier (then upstate New York).
Italian operaometimes in English versionsas in vogue from Boston to Philadelphia from the 1820s onward. Classic European myths found in opera entered American literature and were reinforced in the public imagination. For instance, the Englishman Rophino Lacy (1795867) in 1830 adapted the music, libretto, and significant details of Gioacchino Rossini's opera La Cenerentola (1817) for London audiences. His version, Cinderella, was imported to the United States in 1831. The music (not all by Rossini) and such elements as a glass slipper in place of the magic bracelet remained staples of the opera stage into the 1870s.
The vogue for opera prompted American authors to try their hand. William Henry Fry (1813864), who covered the arts for his father's Philadelphia National Gazette, wrote what is acknowledged to be America's first grand opera, Leonora (Philadelphia, 1845). The libretto was by his brother, Joseph Reese Fry (1811865), who had cut his teeth on arranging English versions of Italian opera. Both words and music were considered by critics to be noble attempts at high American art, but in the end the Frys produced unsatisfying imitations of their European models.
The selection of American literary sources by immigrant composers changed the native composers' viewpoint. Luigi Arditi's (1822903) La Spia (premiered New York, 1856), based on James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Spy (1821), was the most successful. American composers eventually caught the idea. At least three operas from this period were based on the writings of Washington Irving (1783859). Two composers found appeal in the way Irving combined European literary style with subjects from the American rural frontier: the libretto of James Gaspard Maeder's The Peri; or, The Enchanted Fountain (1852) adapts Irving's A History of Columbus; and George Bristow's Rip Van Winkle (1855) elaborates the short story of the same title. Charles Edward Horne was alone in looking to Irving as a source for an exotic, rather than an American, theme: his Ahmed al Kamel (1846) is based on Irving's Tales of the Alhambra.
Bristow's opera, the first "grand opera" based on an American literary source, was received by even the harshest critics as a breakthrough. John Sullivan Dwight (1813893) of Boston, allied with the transcendentalists and spokesman for the highest standards of Germanic art, responded approvingly, "If we are ever to have any national operas, they must be based upon our own language; the unison of intelligible, vigorous and attractive plays with kindred music" (quoted in Kirk, p. 93).
The wide performance of European opera and the nascent American efforts in this genre inspired parody. Francis James Child (1825896), the Harvard graduate who documented the traditional oral ballads of the British isles ("the Child ballads"), revealed his equal familiarity with grand opera in his 1862 spoof Il Pesceballo, a pasticcio of opera airs to a libretto (in Italian) telling the old comic ballad of "one fishball."
The theatrical genre of burlesque, in which the nuances of intricate wordplay depended upon the audience's familiarity with popular literary and theatrical works and conventions, capitalized with particular glee on the minstrel and Indian themes. John Brougham's (1814880) Po-Ca-Hon-Tas; or, The Gentle Savage (1855), with music adapted in burlesque fashion by Maeder, is a prominent example. It burlesques and freely pirates contemporary works in all forms of popular theater from opera to minstrelsy.
Music from the full range of theatrical genres was also performed in the home. Sheet-music publications of opera arias and piano arrangements of operatic melodies were legion. Playwrights also turned out amateur or "parlor" dramas as popular entertainment for middle-class Americans from the time of the Civil War. The most prolific pen belonged to Alfred B. Sedgwick, whose "musical dualities" (two roles), "sketches," and "parlor operas" entail witty wordplay and story ideas and music clearly borrowed from European operettas and operas popular in the United States.
The antebellum period saw American art-music practices grow to become established on a wide scale, fueled by literary, social, and theological movements. The historian Richard Hooker has identified literary aesthetic rules that underlay musical practices in the eastern seaboard cities after 1820, noting that writers for nationally distributed music journals created a sort of "musical anxiety" about the absence of an authentically American music.
Among the first composers of symphonic works in America was Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781861),
The Indian theme remained a source of distinctly American character for symphonic composers well into the twentieth century. The theme was given new breath by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha when it appeared in 1855. The theater composer Robert Stoepel, who also wrote evocative music for the concert hall, composed his "Hiawatha: An Indian Symphony" in 1859.
American audiences approached the performances of even the most abstract concert music through a context shaped largely by their experience of America's authors. Notions of social class and dress, family and gender roles, ethnicity and identity, and national culture that were articulated and debated in American literature were also the frameworks through which even purely instrumental music was understood and reviewed in public discourse. Music and literature were intimately bound up with one another throughout this formative period for American culture.
See also Satire, Burlesque, and Parody; The Song of Hiawatha; Theater
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Deane L. Root
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