Who wrote the first opera in the United States?

The usual answer to that question, William Henry Fry, produced Leonora in Philadelphia in 1845. A skillful imitation of Bellini and Donizetti it ran for twelve performances, successful enough to justify publication of a piano-vocal score. Fry’s brother Joseph adapted the libretto from a novel by Bulwer-Lytton.

In the November 23, 1843 issue of the Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper, appears notice of a new opera:

“The idea of a Native American Opera is something so new and unexpected that our musical amateurs and connoisseurs were not a little taken aback by the announcement of Andre at the American Theatre, and, the consequence was . . . a considerable stirring up of curiosity. The name of Cioffi, in connection with the affair, was alone sufficient to give it respectability, and ensure for its proper consideration. . . .”

Felippe Cioffi was best known as an excellent trombonist. Apparently Italian born but educated and trained in this country, he had many years experience playing in theater orchestras. He was also a military band master, composer of marches, and winner of a local contest for the best arrangements of American patriotic melodies.

The article goes on to say that Andre “afforded satisfaction” for two performances. Then it disappeared from sight. Fry, an experienced and well-rounded composer, undoubtedly wrote a better opera. Cioffi produced his more than a year earlier.

Popular song in America, part 8: After the Civil War

It takes a long time to recover from a trauma. The United States did not begin to recover from the Civil War for at least two decades after it ended. The healing of mutual hatred between North and South did not begin until much later than that.

Perhaps because of the continuing bitterness and recrimination in business and politics, popular music of the postwar period did not witness any important innovations or new song writers.

Many composers who made their reputations before and during the war continued to produce new songs, but without any reference to current events or social conditions. Nostalgia, out of favor in Europe, characterized American song so thoroughly that it became a means of escaping from the pressures of the modern world.

Two songs by Henry Clay Work became especially popular after the war. “Come Home, Father,” a temperance song, is one of the few songs dealing with any social issue that achieved real popularity. The other, “Grand-Father’s Clock,” captures the spirit of the 1870s in being emotionally gentle, with no drama or pathos.

Hart Pease Danks, composer of “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” became the second American (after Stephen Foster) to make his entire living from song writing. Others who achieved success after the war include Septimus Winner (“Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone”), Thomas Paine Westendorf (I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen”), Will Hays (“Write Me a Letter from Home”), and Charles A. White (“The Little Church Around the Corner”).

Minstrel shows continued as popular entertainment long after the end of the war, but their character changed. Still loosely organized sequences of a variety of acts, their productions became more polished and more lavish.

While they still continued to present the same kind of racial stereotyping as the prewar show, they broadened their focus in two different ways. They began to subject other ethnic groups such as  American Indians, Chinese, Irish, and Germans to the same satirical treatment. And they began to include black performers, sometimes with their faces blackened.

Both Hays and White made their reputations as composers of minstrel songs. So did James Bland, the first successful black song writer. Son of a black lawyer educated at Howard University, Bland dropped out of Howard to pursue a career on the minstrel stage.

His songs, including “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” and “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” are no different either musically or textually from any other minstrel songs. He could not have achieved success if they had dared any but the traditional image of black people.

A somewhat more authentic black voice emerged when the Fisk Jubilee Singers began to tour to raise money for Fisk University in Nashville, the first all-black university in America. George White, their founder and conductor, transcribed words and melodies from songs slaves had traditionally sung, but arranged them for performance using European-style harmony.

The postwar years saw little innovation in song, but did witness a certain standardization of form, resulting in a distinctly American pattern. The typical song began with an introduction for piano, had two to four verses, a refrain, and a postlude.

The sixteen-measure verse, which always reused the music of the introduction, could exhibit some variety of structure using various permutations of two or three different four-measure phrases.

The refrain, usually arranged for four voices, was based on one of the phrases in the verse. The postlude, often identical to the introduction, featured material from the first phrase of the verse.

Poetically, the verse presented a brief dramatic story line, which could have a tragic, nostalgic, pathetic, or cautionary coloring. The refrain text, usually derived from the first verse, offered an unchanging commentary on the verses.

Popular song in America, part 7: Civil War Songs

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Issues of slavery and states rights so divided the nation that the American Civil War broke out as soon as Abraham Lincoln was proclaimed President-elect. It lasted four years, but strangely music unified the opposing armies at times.  

Two publishers, the Chicago’s Root & Cady and Boston’s Oliver Ditson, account for the bulk of the North’s best war songs. George Frederick Root, brother of one of the Root & Cady’s founders, wrote “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Vacant Chair,” “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” and Brother, Tell Me of the Battle.” Henry Clay Work, who also published with Root & Cady, contributed “Kingdom Coming,” “Grafted Into the Army,” “Marching Through Georgia,” and “Wake Nicodemus.”

Ditson’s firm published nearly as many important songs, although no one composer contributed as many songs as either Root or Work. The most important war song to come off the press in Boston, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was apparently composed by William Steffe, of South Carolina as the camp meeting hymn “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?”  One can only imaging his consternation when his tune was used first for “John Brown’s Body” and then for Julia Ward Howe’s poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Other important war songs issued by Ditson include “Tenting Tonight” by Walter Kittridge” (made famous by the Hutchinson Family) and “We Are Coming, Father Abraham” by Luther O. Emerson.

The South countered with two patriotic rallying songs. “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” by Dan Emmett first appeared as a minstrel song in 1859. The tune was popular in both North and South. Harry Macarthy, a singer who toured all over the South during the early years of the war, wrote “Missouri! or, A Voice from the South,” “The Volunteer; or It Is My Country’s Call,” and the song that became the semi-official Confederate national anthem, “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

As the war dragged on, less militaristic songs appeared, which commented on the human misery it caused. Charles Carroll Sawyer wrote the words for several of them. By far the most popular of them, “Weeping, Sad and Lonely; or When This Cruel War is Over” (music by Henry Tucker) was familiar on both sides. First published in Brooklyn, it came out in at least four Southern editions. Some Southern generals found it so bad for morale that they forbade their soldiers to sing it.

Still other songs, such as “Grafted into the Army” and “Corporal Schnapps” (both by Work) and “Goober Peas” (signed P. Nutt, Esq.) dealt, often humorously, with such issues as conscription, camp life, the ethnic diversity of both armies, and various  political and financial scandals.

Many soldiers, both Northern and Southern, carried songsters with them, pocket-sized books with the lyrics of favorite songs. Although Northern and Southern songsters obviously had very different selections of patriotic songs, they also included songs that had been popular all over before the war. Therefore, when not occupied with fighting or marching, they sang the same songs around their campfires.

In fact, the opposing troops often sang to each other when their camps were within earshot. On at least one occasion, northern and southern bands alternated playing patriotic tunes to each other well into the night and ended up playing “Home Sweet Home” together. The next morning, in the Battle of Murfreesboro, thousands died on each side. And so there was civil by night giving way to war by day.

Gate crashers: trombones in Handel’s Messiah


Illustration by Charles Reinhardt for an 1875 story in Harper’s Magazine about a man with the misfortune to live upstairs from a trombonist.

Merry Christmas! Although Messiah is, strictly speaking, not Christmas music, having been composed for Lenten performances, today we most often hear it at Christmas.

Handel used trombones to great effect in two of his oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, both first performed in 1738. Apparently he did not have access to trombones in any later year; he considered adding trombones to two later oratorios, not including Messiah, but soon abandoned the effort.

Unlike most other music of his time and earlier, Handel’s did not suffer posthumous neglect. The Concert of Ancient Music, founded in 1776, actually had a rule that it would perform no music unless it was at least 20 years old.

There was hardly any music with authentic trombone parts that came within these limits, but Adam Carse reports that W. Greatorex, its secretary and librarian, “an incorrigible arranger and adder of accompaniments, was kept fairly busy gilding lilies.” The orchestra regularly included clarinets, four horns, and three trombones.

Not only did English audiences continue to enjoy his oratorios, they even came into vogue in Vienna. Mozart reorchestrated Messiah, among other Handel works, to bring them up to date. Typical of Mozart’s own church music, his Messiah arrangement includes three trombones (1789).

The English apparently did not use a standard orchestration. The great Handel commemoration of 1789 assembled a large chorus and orchestra, including every instrument Handel had ever used. Sources differ, but the orchestra had either three or six trombonists, who all played other instruments when there were no trombone parts. That does not mean that they played trombone only for Saul and Israel in Egypt. Various accounts of the performance mention trombones in several other pieces.

After the three performances originally scheduled, the king commanded that some of the music be repeated in two more concerts. Commenting on the repetition of Messiah on the second of these, Charles Burney, the event’s official historian, noted  some significant differences in the manner of playing it: “Another new and grand effect was produced to-day in the Hallelujah, and last Chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb,” by the introduction of the tromboni, which were not used in these Choruses, on the former occasion.”

The Times of London advertised at least twelve Lenten performances of Messiah between 1797 and 1800 “assisted by the Trombones and Double Drums, used at Handel’s Commemoration at Westminster Abbey.” As far as I can tell, Mozart’s orchestration was not yet known in England. Its eventual discovery did not keep meddlers from adding to it, as this complaint from the Times about the 1846 Birmingham Festival attests:

The brass instruments (two serpents, an ophicleide, and three trombones included) completely murdered the choruses, “the Lord of hosts,” and “Hallelujah.” Surely Mozart has done as much with Handel’s score as is necessary, and, indeed, permissible; the noisy unmeaning additions of loud instruments by Greatorex and others, only serve to transmogrify the sublimity of Handel into mere rant; and moreover, the object of increased power is not obtained, since those choruses in which the score of Handel remains untouched, except by the mastery and considerate hand of Mozart, are twice and loud and brilliant as those which have been smothered under a weight of brass, &c., by incompetent and injudicious meddlers. The intrusion of two serpents, three trombones, and an ophicleide, into the score of such a complete masterpiece as the Messiah, is absolutely ridiculous; and it should be the duty and wish of judicious conductors to restore Handel to his primitive integrity.

“Greatorex and others” appears to include John Smithies, one of the most active trombonists in London at least from the early 1820s into the middle of the 1840s. Apparently, most later conductors continued to use the same arrangement for the rest of the century. The Times summarized a lecture about the subject in 1899:

Gresham Lectures in Music.

The last two of the series of four lectures given by Sir Frederick Bridge on Handel’s Messiah were exceedingly interesting; that on Thursday could not fail to be most amusing throughout, since it dealt with the incredible “improvements” of Mozart’s additional accompaniments, and with the added trombone parts of a certain Mr. Smithies, who perpetrated an appalling number of dissonances and harmonic errors, which apparently have been retained down to the present day.

Perhaps by that time, someone started to make an effort to clean up the standard score and parts, but performances with a thousand choristers and orchestras with instruments Handel never heard of continued until the attempt to find authentic performance practice started in earnest after the Second World War.

Popular song in America, part 6: Stephen Collins Foster

I can remember as a child reading of Stephen Foster as the “American Schubert.” That is absurd. His knowledge of musical composition was too scanty to deserve that comparison. But during his lifetime he was regarded as the best American songwriter ever. Not until the twentieth century did anyone surpass him.

He was the first full-time professional songwriter in American history. His predecessors had all earned most of their living from performing, publishing, or some other activity and could not have survived on their songs alone. Publishers usually bought songs outright, and if they sold well over a period of years, the song writers made no more money from them. Alone among  his contemporaries, Foster received royalties. Unfortunately, he could not manage  his money well and died deeply in debt.

Foster grew up in a music-loving family, who owned many of the most important and popular song collections. His brother reported that Stephen spent  hours studying the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, and other masters, although he certainly did not learn much if anything about form or harmony from it. If he had any formal training, it took the form of a few lessons with Henry Kleber, a German-born musical jack-of-all-trades living in Pittsburgh.

His earliest songs, beginning with “Open Thy Lattice, Love” (1844)  most greatly resemble those of English composers such as Henry Rowley Bishop and Charles E Horn, who were already going out of style. In 1845, he made his first, tentative foray into “Ethiopian songs.” He wrote “Lou’siana Belle,” “Old Uncle Ned,” “Oh, Susannah,” and a few others strictly for the private entertainment of some of his friends in Pittsburgh.

The “wealthiest and best-educated classes” disapproved of minstrel shows and their low-brow humor and music, so Foster did not publish his immediately. “Oh, Susannah” actually appeared in 1848 attributed to E. P. Christy. In 1851, so did “Old Folks at  Home,” which quickly became his best-selling song. Not until 1852 did Foster notify Christy that he had decided to “pursue the Ethiopian business without fear or shame” so he could establish his own name as “the best Ethiopian song-writer.” By that time, it appears, he already had. His twelve “Ethiopian songs” were his most popular.

A previous article in this series described how typical minstrel songs evolved from demeaning “nigger songs” to “plantation songs” that fully humanized their African subjects. Foster, in fact, pioneered the latter. Even when his texts are at their most offensive to modern sensibilities, they are never mean-spirited. His black people are never the butt of racist jokes. At their best, Foster’s texts invest black people with the same range of emotion as white people, especially with the nostalgia that so characterized the Irish element in American song and many of Foster’s other songs.

Musically, melodies of minstrel songs partook of the same amalgam of English, Irish, and Italian styles (with some occasional elements from Scottish and German songs) as any other American song, except that they ended in refrain lines that could be sung by the entire company. Before Foster, these refrains were often sung in unison. Foster, having written three- and four-part harmony for his Pittsburgh friends, continued to do so. Working with Christy he knew that professional entertainers  would perform them.

Over the course of his career, Foster wrote about 135 domestic songs, mostly love songs or nostalgic reminiscences of past events. He could write this kind of respectable song “without fear or shame.”  He wrote only 28 plantation songs. And yet his reputation rests on them. The best of his domestic songs partake of some of the characteristics that made his “Ethiopian” songs so popular.

Popular song in America, part 5: some early American song-writers

Nineteenth-century America’s greatest song writer, Stephen Collins Foster, owed much to a variety of musical influences. Earlier posts in this series have shown the amalgam of English, Irish, and Italian influences that led to the first distinctively American style of song. The first recognized American form of entertainment added detailed (if racist) observation of the dialect and mannerisms of African slaves to make up a separate genre, the plantation song. With its choral refrains and other innovations, plantation songs in turn influenced other American song writers who were not at all involved with minstrel shows. At about the same time, a growing appreciation of German Lieder enabled American song writers to explore more independent accompaniments and more chromatic harmonies. This post will examine some of the important composers in the generations leading up to Foster.

Francis  Hopkinson claimed to be the first native-born American to compose music. He claimed too much, but he was the first to compose and publish secular songs for solo voice and keyboard accompaniment. His Seven Songs for the Harpsichord, published in1788, are a landmark in American musical history, but they seem to have made little impression at the time. Indistinguishable in style from the output of popular English composers, they did not sell well enough to justify a reprint and did not appear singly in any anthology.

The 1817 celebration of the Fourth of July in Boston featured a choral concert that, among other things, included two songs by Oliver Shaw of Providence, Rhode Island–the first time an American composer had been so honored. Instead of offering up imitations of songs by Arne, Hook, and other English song writers, Shaw demonstrated a thorough familiarity with the styles of Handel and Haydn as well. His songs exhibited a polish comparable to that of the finest composers Americans had ever heard, so most of the audience simply assumed that a European had written them. His first successful song,”Mary’s Tears” (1812) remained in print even after Stephen Foster wrote most of his best songs, but his style did not keep up with the times. His last songs attracted little interest.

The single best-selling song in America before Foster, “The Minstrel Returned from the War,” by John Hill Hewitt, appeared in 1825. The son of an English musician who emigrated to New York as a young man and composed several successful songs, Hewitt did not make   Shaw’s mistake. His earliest songs show all of the same characteristics of a thoroughly English style that his father’s did, but he absorbed the influences from Irish songs and Italian arias, and his songs of the 1830s and 40s are themselves a microcosm of the development of American song writing, including a significant number of minstrel songs. He could have been more influential if he had lived in a major center for musical publication instead of Baltimore and point south, and if he had not been pro-slavery in his politics.

As the nation lurched toward civil war over slavery, the Hutchinson Family risked their reputation to deliver an increasingly strident abolitionist message. The youngest four of thirteen surviving children of a musically inclined family, Judson, John, Asa, and Abby Hutchinson first sang together as “The Aeolian Vocalists” and started on a lengthy tour in 1842. Soon, they changed their name to “The Hutchinson Family” and started to emphasize their New England roots in both programming and costuming. At first singing a mixture of popular melodramatic and comic songs, they gradually started programming more and more of their own songs, which deliberately used the same folk-like “crude” part-writing that characterized hymns by William Billings and his contemporaries.

They had their first personal encounter with slavery on the 1842 tour, and it disturbed them. Shortly thereafter, an older brother befriended Frederick Douglass and began to oppose slavery actively. The family singing group participated in its first anti-slavery rally in 1843 and toured England with Douglass in 1845  (performing mostly in rural towns and receiving first-hand experience with English social problems). Little by little, their zeal to abolish slavery began to dominate their programs. Although they met with opposition–not only for their political views, but the very fact that they introduced them in their concerts–they persevered at the cost of declining popularity and even pro-slavery mobs breaking up their concerts and rallies where they appeared. Musically, nothing about their original songs held any interest after they were no longer around to perform them. Historically, as the first American performers to use popular music as a means of social protest, their importance and influence is incalculable.

Although born in England (in 1812), Henry Russell first established his reputation as a song writer after he moved to Rochester, New York (by way of Italy and Canada) some time before 1835. In that year, he attended a speech by Sen. Henry Clay. Fascinated not so much by Clay’s topic as by his magnetic ability to  hold an audience’s attention, he went home and wrote a song, or more properly, an operatic scena in a thoroughly Italian style that includes frequent changes of meter and tempo to match the dramatic content of the  poem. A Rochester publisher offered it for sale. Russell, with his professionally trained baritone voice and formidable keyboard technique, decided to undertake a tour so he could establish himself as the Henry Clay of popular music.

Before two musical seasons had passed, Russell had a nationwide reputation as both a singer and song writer. Although he continued to write dramatic narrative pieces on Italian models, he also wrote many simple, strophic songs with easy accompaniments, suitable for domestic performance. It is important to remember that, in the time before the invention of recordings, the piano was the “home entertainment center” and the music industry depended on sales of sheet music to the average citizen. Rudimentary accompaniments guaranteed that people with the most modest keyboard skills could play them. People with greater technique could easily “fill them out.”

After only six years as one of the most popular singers and song writers in the United States, Russell returned to England, leaving behind an amazing number of the best-selling songs before Stephen Foster, among them “The Old Arm Chair” and “Woodman! Spare That Tree!” A classically trained musician, Russell quickly grasped that the audience with the background to appreciate the classical masters was small in this country, but that the many Americans who could read and write musical notation constituted a vast market for popular songs. He composed for them, and along the way earned the contempt of J. S. Dwight, the leading proponent of classical music in America.

Charles Hamm wrote, “In a very real sense, the concept of popular song may be said to have begun with Henry Russell–an English-born Jew who studied in Italy, first came to Canada, and then furnishing Americans with songsmith an Italian musical style, mostly to texts reflecting an Irish type of nostalgia. Of such ethnic mixtures was popular song in America born” (Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, p. 184).

My 10 favorite lesser-known Christmas pieces

I have been enjoying my Christmas records for the past couple of weeks. I have also seen plenty of online articles and blogposts with titles like, “The Ten Best Christmas Pieces of All Times,” or more modestly, “My Ten Favorite Christmas Songs.” A lot of them list the music we hear in church, concerts, on the radio, and in stores and shopping malls year after year.

I thought I’d do something a little different and list some of my favorite pieces that are less well known. Most are older than the what we usually hear many times over the course of the season. Readers of this blog have probably heard at least some of these pieces, just not as often as the popular favorites.

10. Hacia Belén / Spanish composer (unknown time)

Probably until the invention and commercialization of Santa Claus, even secular carols focused on Jesus and his birth. In this silly little villancico, some gypsies, a man in a sombrero, and a donkey laden with chocolate arrive at the stable in Bethlehem. The refrain calls to Mary to hurry up, but she doesn’t. The gypsies steal the swaddling clothes, somehow the chocolate disappears, and the donkey eats the sombrero.

9. Riu, riu chiu / anonymous Spanish villancico (published in 1556)

The nobility of Vallencia prided themselves on the subtlety of their erudition and ability of their conversation and their poetry. The text of this piece explains the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, portraying the devil as a wolf, Mary as a precious ewe, and God the Father as a shepherd who builds an impregnable wall around her. I especially enjoy this piece for the exuberant rhythm of its refrain.

8. Allon, gay, gay bergères / Guillaume Costeley (late 16th century)

Another secular piece. Here the shepherds go to Bethlehem to visit the new-born king and, among other things, comment on how well he drinks from his mother’s breast. This chanson exhibits Costeley’s skill in counterpoint. It’s very fun to sing.

7. Quem pastores laudavere / German (late 16th century)

When Luther broke from the Roman church, he did not abandon the use of Latin or the liturgical structure of worship services. This piece, used for Christmas night services, has been so popular in Germany that “Quempas” became slang for the more proper “Weihnachtslied” (Christmas carol). I suppose if Christmas in Germany is as commercialized as it has become in the US, German shoppers probably get their fill of this tune every year. It’s a beautiful change of pace here.

6. A virgin unspotted / William Billings (late 18th century)

Throughout the eighteenth century, a number of composers whose names are now known only to musicologists composed unsophisticated music for use in rural English churches. Since English styles were the source of nearly all American music, it is no surprise that William Billings and other largely self-taught American composers used fuging tunes and other rural English practices as their model. “A virgin unspotted” does not include a fuging tune, but it does have a jig-like refrain and a vigor typical of his other works.

5. Quelle est cette odeur agréable? / French (17th century)

An anonymous seventeenth-century cleric, likely from  Lorraine, wrote a fairly sophisticated dialog between the shepherds and the angel that announced Jesus’ birth to them. It was fitted to a tune already well known in both France and England, where, with other words and doubtless a different singing style, appeared in comic operas and as a drinking song. As a Christmas song, it exudes a beautifully serene mood.

4. Still, still, still / Austrian (18th century?)

Neither of my recordings of this piece have liner notes. Searching the Web does not turn up much either, except that it was published in a collection called “Salzburger Volkslieder” (Folksongs from Salzburg) in 1819. Who knows how much older  it actually is? it. It is another very simple, very serene piece asking for stillness so the Christ child can sleep and commenting on the depth of love God exhibited in leaving his throne to become this child.

3. Gesu bambino / Pietro Yon (1917)

The Italian-born Yon moved to New York in 1907 to serve as organist and choirmaster of the church of St. Francis Xavier. He remained in New York for the rest of his life, eventually taking a similar position at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Gesu bambino,” his most famous piece, has a flowing Italianate melody that borrows its refrain from the traditional “Adeste fidelis” (“O come let us adore him”).

2. O magnum mysterium / Tomas Luis de Victoria (1572)

I can justify inclusion of this often-recorded masterpiece on a list lesser-known pieces mostly because has not suffered the kind of overexposure as much of the standard Christmas music on other top ten lists. I cannot recall when I first heard it or remember a time before it was one of my favorite pieces.

1. In principio erat verbum / Josquin des Prez (early 16th century)

I had the opportunity to sing this with a Renaissance choir more than 30 years ago. It was as difficult to learn as anything I ever remember singing, but well worth it. I fell in love with the piece and began to look for a recording, to no avail. Apparently no one ever recorded it until maybe a couple of years ago. Someone called a 99¢ download to my attention, and last year I decided to look for it. This time, I even found the piece on a recent CD. It’s not a Christmas CD, but the text, from the first chapter of John’s gospel, is the text appointed for Christmas morning in every lectionary I ever heard of. Maybe now that this beautiful motet  has been recorded once, someone will put it on a Christmas CD. Meanwhile, printed music has been easily available for years. I strongly recommend it to any choir that does Renaissance music.

Popular song in America, part 4: the influence of German songs

German-speaking people began to emigrate to America in modest numbers as early as the late seventeenth century. Generally, they got on well with the Anglophone majority and willingly adopted American habits and viewpoints. Settlements in Pennsylvania and North Carolina by the Moravian Church featured musical practices inherited from Germany, but had little influence on the surrounding culture.

Things began to change by about the 1830s. The rate of immigration from Germany increased rapidly. This new influx brought German culture not to isolated settlements, but to major cities. Simply examining census records over the course of several decades of the nineteenth century to see which cities had the largest German population gives a pretty accurate indication of which cities first had their own resident orchestras, oratorio societies, and other features of German music.

Even the musical institutions that existed before this wave of German immigrants began to branch out from performing only such music as was commonly done in London to include more German music.

Thus far, I could be describing the tremendous German influence on classical music in this country. Quite independent of trying to appeal to a new class of consumers, a Boston publisher issued a set of Gems of German Songs, including songs of Schubert and Weber, all fitted with English texts. In fact, the set first appeared before the scope of the coming wave of immigration became apparent. That set was the first of many the same publisher issued over the next decade or so. Other publishers soon followed.

By this time, a distinction between “classical” and “popular” music was already evident, both in Europe and in America. Here, however, as far as vocal music was concerned, the distinction depended largely on language. In Europe, a Mozart opera was “classical” and a Rossini opera was “popular.” Here, either one was part of what H. Wiley Hitchcock called the “cultivated tradition” if performed or published in Italian, but accepted on equal footing with any other popular song if presented in English.

Therefore, an edition of songs by Schubert, Beethoven, or any other “heavyweight” with English texts did not represent “classical” music. It offered only another style of song that customers could buy for their own entertainment, or enjoy when they went to hear performances of their favorite professional singers. Home piano benches and public programs alike contained a mixture of English, Italian, American, and German songs without any particular consciousness of artistic distinctions.

The piano plays a much different role in German songs than in those from any other country of the time. It is an equal partner with the singer. Very often, it has its own melodic material, while the singer has something entirely different. Harmonies tend to be  more daring and chromatic in than any other song tradition. German songs also demonstrated a melding of song with dance rhythms, something other nationalities had kept separate.

German songs had a lesser impact on American song writers than the waves of influences described in earlier installments of this series, primarily because plantation songs and other truly American song styles had developed before German songs became readily available in large numbers. And yet many very successful American songs could never have been written if their composers had not known a variety of German songs.

Popular song in America, part 3: minstrel shows and plantation songs

As was the case with many things popular in America, black characters played by whites on stage originated in England. As early as 1768, black characters offered comic relief in English operas. Some of these same operas were equally popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Poets attempted to develop a dialect that could sound suitably like how a black person might speak, although they didn’t use it consistently even within a single song.

Composers had no idea what kinds of melodies blacks may have sung. Some made no attempt, writing the same kinds of melodies they would have used for any other text. Some attempted to portray their supposed backwardness by simplifying the melody and harmony. Some attempted to portray their supposed uncouth primitiveness with Scottish rhythms and pentatonic melodies.

In 1822, a successful English actor, Charles Matthews visited New York, where he expected to make more money than he could in London. Matthews had a great ear for dialect, and his most successful acts had been one-person entertainments made up of monologues, jokes, and songs impersonating various characters. America offered not only financial rewards, but a chance to learn new accents and dialects. Fascinated with the speech of blacks, Matthews was the first to pay careful enough attention to reproduce them accurately.

At about the same time, American entertainers darkened their faces with burnt cork. Several achieved great success as blackface entertainers in the 1820s and 30s. Thomas Dartmouth Rice developed the character “Jim Crow,” who not only sang but danced. According to one story, which might actually be true, Rice first performed his act wearing the clothes of a negro beggar in Pittsburgh, who interrupted the act to get his clothes back to catch a steamboat, much to the amusement of the audience.

The music of Rice and others bore no resemblance to authentic slave songs. Blacks had much more musical talent than anyone of the time gave them credit for. Many, such as band leader Francis Johnson, became proficient in performing the music popular among the white population. If Rice heard lower-class blacks singing in the Northern towns he visited, he may have thought his tunes were as authentic as he thought his dialect and dances were.

Up until the end of the 1830s, concerts and evenings at the theater often offered a variety of entertainments. Blackface routines, among other things, often appeared between the acts of a play or opera.

By the 1840s, so-called minstrel shows were widely regarded as a characteristically American form of entertainment. Different from the earlier variety shows, minstrel shows consisted of a group of white musicians in blackface performing for an entire evening. An “ethiopian band” called the Virginia Minstrels presented perhaps the first of these in 1843.

A year later, nearly every city had its own minstrel groups. Many others toured around the country, visiting smaller towns. Christy’s Minstrels dominated the field for decades. Banjoist Dan Emmett, a founding member of the short-lived Virginia Minstrels, also maintained his eminence.

Musically, the earliest minstrel songs typically greatly resembled other American popular songs in the English/Irish/Scottish vein, with occasional elements of Italian opera. In the late 1840s and 50s, their harmonies and structure took on greater sophistication and irregularity. Gone was any attempt to use childishly simple tunes to portray backwardness. Since composers intended these new “plantation songs” for performance on stage, many of them required a soloist on the verses,  joined by a chorus on the refrain.

The emotional content of the words likewise underwent an evolution from demeaning stereotypes played for cheap laughs to plantation songs, still in dialect, but expressing the same emotional range from tenderness to love to grief  as any other song of the time. In fact, in humanizing the experiences of slaves, some of these songs may have given some emotional support to the abolitionist movement. Others maintained a strongly pro-slavery viewpoint. As the country became more divided over the issue, the song texts became more strident.

This post describes minstrel songs only about up to the American Civil War. They did not peak in popularity until the 1880s. Blackface entertainers lasted into the twentieth century. Even before the Civil War, the innovations (both musical and textual) that led to the plantation song began to effect other popular songs that had nothing to do with dialect or plantation life.

By the 1840s American song had evolved from styles indistinguishable from what was popular in England to something distinctive. One more element, German song, deserves attention before this series turns to surveying individual American composers and their songs.

Popular song in America, part 2: the influence of Italian opera

At first glance, the performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in New York on November 29, 1825, seems to have little to do with popular music. It marks the first American production of any opera in Italian, or indeed any other foreign language. (New Orleans had a long tradition of presenting opera in French, but then it was originally a French city and remained largely French in culture long after the United States acquired it. Opera in French there hardly counted as a foreign language.) Actually, it affected American popular music almost as much as Irish music had some time earlier.

Italian opera had been in and out of style in England for about a hundred years by that time. George Frideric Handel made his initial reputation there composing operas in Italian, but saw the audience for them disappear and began writing oratorios in English instead.

A second wave of interest began in the late 1760s, but waned again before the end of the century. Then, in 1806, English audiences heard their first Mozart opera and clamored for more. Performances in England of Rossini’s works began in 1818. Although many professional critics loved Mozart and bitterly disdained Rossini, the operas of both had great audience appeal.

Performances of opera in a foreign language met with opposition as well, though. When Henry Rowley Bishop became musical director at Covent Garden, he decided to adapt these foreign operas to English words, get rid of recitatives, and turn the arias to song-forms more familiar to English taste.

Bishop presented his version of The Barber of Seville in 1818. The Park Theatre in New York first performed it in 1819 and then each of the next five years. Therefore, the 1825 performances in Italian meant only that New York audiences could hear familiar music in an unfamiliar language. Every attempt to establish a permanent Italian opera theater failed sooner or later until well after the Civil War. Meanwhile, “English opera,” Italian operas adapted by Bishop and like-minded composers, enjoyed unbroken success.

American publication of arias from operas by Mozart and others with English words began as early as 1815. In the first installment of this series, I mentioned how Irish songs appealed to the American imagination because their origin as folk melodies gave them an exotic flavor and their words introduced texts in first person and a certain attractive sense of nostalgia.

Italian arias were exotic in a different way. Having been composed for virtuoso singers, they had very florid tunes, which the adapters pretty much left alone. Their original orchestral accompaniments transferred to the piano much better as arpeggiated figures than the traditional block chords.

In part because of the influence of Irish and Italian songs, Americans began to lose interest in the English pleasure garden songs that had dominated public performances and sheet music sales since colonial times.