Before the Academy: Classical Music in the Quaker City

338 Spruce Street in 1961, home of Francis Hopkinson, the composer of “The President’s March,” otherwise known as “Hail, Columbia!”

During the late eighteenth century, Philadelphia’s Quaker elite had a dim view of the performing arts.  For a sect that prized plainness, industry, and silence, European high culture represented frivolity and unnecessary “fanciness.”  Having a harpsichord or fortepiano in one’s house could mean being “read out” of meeting, and Friends schools forbade keyboard instruments until the 1900s. As theater was banned in the city proper,  the town of Southwark (today’s Queen Village) became the de facto entertainment district for colonial America’s most populous city.

Yet things changed when President George Washington took up residence on Market Street in 1790.  Washington could not play an instrument or carry a tune.  The extremely image-conscious Washington loved the theater.  His favorite play was Joseph Addison’s play about the Roman Republican hero Cato.  He loved dancing even more. During the 1790s, when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, a coterie of musicians organized performances of orchestral music by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and other European masters. They also sprinkled their own compositions into the programs.  These American pieces were written in the  classical style but frequently quoted patriotic songs such as “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail, Columbia,” as well as Irish and Scottish folk songs.  And then there was Benjamin Franklin, who loved music so much that he invented a new instrument that became all the rage in Europe and America: the haunting, ethereal “glass harmonica.”


Mozart: Adagio & Rondo for Glass Harmonica & Quartet – Adagio

This stylistic pastiche shamelessly played on the cultural insecurity of Philadelphia’s literati, who yearned for sophistication but did not want to be seen as un-Republican British imitators.  During the French Revolution, composers would also insert bars of controversial, anti-aristocratic songs such “La Marseillaise” and “Ca Ira” into their works, provoking either wild applause or hissing from the audience.  Although Americans had recently ridden themselves of a king, not everyone was sure that the violent overthrow of Louis XVI was such a good idea.


“A Toast” by Francis Hopkinson, starting at 2:00.

One American in this coterie was Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson, a renaissance man of means who dabbled in writing plays and political satire, as well as playing the harpsichord and organ. He even composed a short revolutionary propaganda opera, entitled American Independent or The Temple of Minerva. Shortly before his untimely death in 1791, Hopkinson published “Seven Songs for Harpsichord or Piano Forte,” dedicated to George Washington.  Hopkinson seems to have thought rather highly of himself,  declaring in the dedication: ”I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition.”


“The Federal Overture” by Benjamin Carr, c.1795. The French Republican sympathies of Carr’s Philadelphia audience are pretty obvious in this piece.  Note also the inclusion of the famous Irish gig “Mother Hen” and Francis Hopkinson’s “The President’s March” (aka “Hail, Columbia!”).

The most famous of President Washington’s “court composers” was Alexander Robert Reinagle.  The son of a Hungarian father and a Scottish mother, he immigrated to America from Edinburgh in 1786.  By the 1790s, Reinangle was writing concert music for professionals and amateur ensembles, holding concerts at the City Tavern’s Assembly Room and the Chestnut Theatre.  Compared to British and Viennese ensembles, Reinangle’s players were doubtless rather rough-and-ready.  Reinagle’s compositional style had its roots in the classicism of Haydn and C.P.E. Bach, which perfectly matched the simple, well-proportioned “Federal” style of architecture.

The Chestnut Theater itself, opened in 1794, was the work of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the mastermind of the Fairmount Waterworks.  Able to seat around 1,100 people on four levels, its stage was crowned by a sculpture of a soaring eagle in the clouds. George Washington was a frequent, enthusiastic attendee of Reinagle’s concerts; he even entrusted the composer with the musical education of his stepdaughter Nellie Custis.


Benjamin Carr: Rondo on “Yankee Doodle” (1804)

Another Philadelphia composer was London-born Benjamin Carr, who arrived in the city in 1793 as a voice and keyboard teacher.  In addition to teaching and composing, he served as organist and choirmaster at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church and then St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Carr’s most famous work is the “Federal Overture,” written for full orchestra in 1794.

The Musical Fund Hall, 1959, after being sold to a labor organization. The Victorian facade was added in the late 19th century.

Yet Carr’s most important contribution to the musical life of the city was co-founding along with artist Thomas Sully of the Musical Fund Society in 1820. Its charitable board sponsored the city’s first symphony orchestra. Headquartered in a magnificent auditorium designed by William Strickland, the Musical Fund Society was the forerunner of The Philadelphia Orchestra. The Society’s purpose was “first, to cultivate and diffuse musical taste, and secondly, to afford relief to its necessitous professional members and their families.” Designed by William Strickland, the Musical Fund Hall was a Greek Revival structure with an auditorium on the second floor.  Playing host to such distinguished guests as singer Jenny Lind and author William Thackeray, it was the city’s grandest concert hall until the Academy of Music opened on South Broad Street in 1857.

Sources:

E. Digby Balzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1979), p.319.

Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres A-Z (New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1986), pp.84, 172.

Philadelphia Scrapple: Whimsical Bits Anent Eccentrics & the City’s Oddities (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, 1956), p.141.

Philadelphia Composers: Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809), http://www.library.upenn.edu/collections/rbm/keffer/reinagle.html

Francis Hopkinson, 1737-1791. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.200035713/default.html

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