Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

“Thomas Jefferson and Music” by Helen Cripe (Thomas Jefferson Foundation)

It goes without saying that Thomas Jefferson is one of the most heralded figures in American history. It’s not simply that he played one of the most crucial roles in establishing the principles on which the United States was founded. It’s not just that he became our third President, and was responsible for expanding our country’s borders tremendously via the Louisiana Purchase. Those things would be accomplishment enough for any one man. But it’s the whole “Renaissance Man” aspect of his life that catches the fancy of many people. We don’t witness that phenomenon much anymore, in an era when the great bulk of us have become specialists, which makes a politician, document writer, farming innovator, architect, inventor - well, you get the idea - who was also one of the most significant of all Founding Fathers such an attractive personality. To be sure, his relationships with people he held in bondage raised a few eyebrows a few years ago, though he didn’t really do anything that was considered grossly untoward in his day. Even so, every side in our national debates wants to claim him, to tell us that they are the ones who are carrying on his spirit. Fact of the matter is, we ALL are in one way or another. (Do I seem too much like a Fan?)

Given Jefferson’s involvement in so many facets of life, no one should be surprised that he also took a strong interest in music. And although he may not have been a major figure, and failed to become noteworthy as, say, composer or performer, he was still at the forefront of activity in the early days of the United States as a supporter, someone who was quick to catch on to the innovations of others and the artistic happenings of the day. This was the era when American composers such as Carr and Hewitt were taking the new land’s first musical baby steps (aside from psalm writers) in hopes of eventually establishing an identity apart from that of the former mother country. Jefferson supported them. It was the era when the long-established harpsichord was starting to feel the heat of competition from the pianoforte, which was just becoming a reliable instrument and a worthwhile alternative. Jefferson owned both. It was an era when other new instruments (such as Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica; speaking of Renaissance Men!) and refinements of older ones (including a harpsichord attachment called the celestina) attempted to establish a foothold in the minds of the musical public, with fleeting success or none at all. Jefferson checked them out. It was an era of change in classical music, as the Classical Period began to give way to the Romantic Era. Jefferson went to the concerts. It was an era when classical and folk music had yet to appeal to audiences totally removed from each other. Jefferson the violinist/fiddler played both. It was an era when “popular music” in the modern sense of the term had not begun to develop to any great extent, as there was not yet enough of an urban middle class to make it profitable. But there WAS a theatrical style somewhere between light opera and our musical theater called the “ballad opera”. Jefferson attended the performances AND bought the scores.

All this activity is documented in “Thomas Jefferson and Music”, a small, yet detailed volume originally published in 1979, and now reissued in a revised edition. We see Jefferson the music lover, the amateur musician, the instrument and sheet music purchaser, the concert-goer, the guiding spirit behind his family’s musical interests, the technically-minded tinkerer who was interested in tuning keyboard instruments he himself had no facility for playing, the correspondent with musical inventors (including Franklin). In other words, if it has anything to do with music, and Thomas Jefferson is involved, it’s in this book. In the process, Helen Cripe has given us a fascinating glimpse into the musical life of America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when Americans were finally able to take the time to develop a fervent interest in the musical arts. The book reads easily, as Cripe never allows herself to get too bogged down in minutiae. A knowledge of the classical music scene in Europe will be helpful, but you can learn much without it.

The main body of the text is 82 pages long. There follows another 70+ pages of appendices (lists of sheet-music owned by Jefferson, so far as was documented; plus a list of the concerts he attended while in France, so far as we know), notes, resources, index. As I type this, the book is available through Amazon for under $12, so if you only need the overview, and the documentation does not interest you, it won’t break your bank, or your library’s bank

The book has been published by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, formerly distributed by the University of North Carolina Press. However, distribution is now handled by the University of Virginia Press.

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