The Founding Fathers' first declaration: 'We're an American band!'
Yeah, yeah, the Founding Fathers were rebels, patriots, philosopher-farmers. But more than that, they were a band.
Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry on fiddle; Benjamin Franklin on guitar, harp, viol da gamba, and, natch, glass armonica (he did, after all, invent the thing); Francis Hopkinson on harpsichord; and frontman George Washington doing dance steps Mick couldn't match (no lie, the general is a wizard on the dance floor). It's like: "Hello, colonies! Are you ready to ba-roque?"
Seriously, those guys who led the American revolution were into music. That's the news Keith Womer wants to break to you this Independence Day. The artistic director of La Follia Austin Baroque, which typically concentrates on 17th and 18th century music created in Europe, has steered its gaze to our shores for the upcoming July 4 holiday. The concert Yankee Baroque, taking place this Saturday, unlocks the musical vault of early America, dusts off its unknown treasures, and pays tribute to the passion this nation's founders possessed for music.
I mean, when Jefferson practices on the violin three hours a day for 12 years, you have to figure he's serious about his music-making. And he's far from alone in that. Patrick Henry shares his enthusiasm for the fiddle, and the two Virginians bond over the instrument, back when Jefferson is still a freckle-faced 17-year-old at the College of William and Mary. They play duets at parties, and depending on who you believe, they're either a couple of very accomplished musicians or the two worst fiddlers in the colony. (Womer holds to the former view, insisting that if the third President were to show up in the Live Music Capital today, "he could walk into a La Follia rehearsal, pick up his fine baroque violin, and play the most demanding parts expertly.")
Franklin, being Franklin, of course, doesn't merely learn to play a number of musical instruments skillfully, he creates a new one of his own. His armonica takes the practice of sounding musical tones by running a wet finger around the rims of glasses filled with water and pours out the liquid. In his design, varying the size and thickness of the glasses provides the changes in pitch, and he nestles 37 such glasses onto a spindle, which he can turn with a foot pedal. The music he makes on this machine puts listeners in minds of "angelick strains" and "divine harmony," and when Mozart gets an earful of armonica in Vienna – at the home of Franz Mesmer! – he's so enraptured that he has to dash off a couple of compositions for it. Now, when a genius on the order of Wolfgang Amadeus composes music for your creation, is it any wonder that Franklin later says, "Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction"?
Washington, sad to say, can't play a musical instrument (though he's later portrayed by illustrators tooting a flute while his step-granddaughter plays the harpsichord – probably the same folks who paint him chopping down that cherry tree). And, by his own admission, the sage of Mount Vernon isn't much of a singer, but he loves to hear others sing and play. Wherever Washington travels, he takes in concerts – chamber music, symphonies, oratorios, ballad-operas, the first four-hand piano recital in America – and he makes a point of championing music in the Continental Army. "Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music," the general notes. "Every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it." And noting the difference that music can make on the field of battle, Washington beefs up the training for military musicians, threatening to withhold pay from the fife and drum majors if they can't improve the quality of the sound. In some cases, his efforts pay off: When the colonists win the pivotal Battle of Bennington in 1777, the drummers and fifers keeping the beat on the front lines get a huge chunk of credit for the victory.
So it is that in the same moment America is moving toward a new political identity, it's taking its first steps toward a new musical identity. As more of its citizens are born in the colonies, the first generation of native composers arises. One of the most unlikely – a poor tanner with one blind eye, a withered arm, a shortened leg, and a voice shot to blazes from his addiction to snuff – publishes the first book of exclusively American music: The New England Psalm-Singer (1770), a collection of canons, hymns, and anthems that 24-year-old William Billings composed himself. This Boston choirmaster and self-taught composer is so adamant about the book being American that he won't even print it on English paper. He's as eager to cut ties with the Mother Country as his brothers-in-arms in the fight for independence – companions with whom he's quite tight, by the way: Paul Revere engraves the frontispiece to his book, and Samuel Adams sings with him in the church choir.
The only composer closer to the Founding Fathers is Hopkinson, a New Jersey delegate to the Second Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. By the time he affixes his signature to that historic document, Hopkinson is known around the colonies as a writer of essays, satires, and poems (many of them rooted in the politics of the day); an expert on the harsipchord (not only at playing it, but concocting new ways to make it sound better); and a composer of songs, most notably "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free," the first American art song – indeed, the first secular musical work by a composer born in America. Hopkinson is connected to everybody: He pals around with Jefferson, experiments with adding a keyboard to Franklin's armonica (without success), and dedicates a suite of songs to "His Excellency George Washington, Esquire," who responds by telling Hopkinson that he believes the composer's works have "at least virtue enough in them ... to melt the Ice of the Delaware and Potomack."
In 1781, with the Treaty of Paris (which ends the Revolutionary War) still two years away, Hopkinson delivers to his homeland its first opera. Officially dubbed an "oratorial entertainment" by the author, The Temple of Minerva has the personified spirits of America and France show up at the goddess of wisdom's temple to ask her what lies ahead for the new nation, Columbia. Minerva responds by pointedly praising the alliance of France and America, and allowing that as long as the two stand together for Columbia "great and prosp'rous shall she be." The work concludes with a shout-out to the Americans' commander-in-chief: "Hail, Columbia's god-like son! Hail, the glorious Washington!" – which the general gets to hear himself when he attends a performance of the work in Philadelphia, two months after the Americans' stinging defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
A stirring example of patriotism in early American music, and yet, notes Womer, while the libretto is by an American and intensely pro-American, the music is, um, English. Hopkinson built his text around compositions by George Frideric Handel and Thomas Arne, who wrote that most English of English songs, "Rule, Brittania!" And in a letter to Franklin, he downplays his own poetry as "not very elegant" but says the entertainment from the work came from the music. So political independence doesn't necessarily equate to cultural independence – at least not yet. The Americans – even those native to the new country – feel a deep attachment to the art and culture of England. "Billings writes music in the so-called English West Gallery tradition," Womer says, "and Hopkinson composes art songs which imitate the songs composed in Europe." It isn't until after the Revolutionary War that an American style of music truly emerges, he says, in Yankee tunesmiths such as Timothy Swan and Jeremiah Ingalls and folk hymns in New England and the South. "Note the parallel between this period and the development of the Constitution, truly a mark of unique American greatness. This, I believe, is where America emerges as a great nation, with true American music being part of that greatness."
That said, Womer still finds the music of the Revolutionary War era compelling. Half the music on the Yankee Baroque program was work he didn't know at all when he started putting the concert together. "Instead of approaching the music judgmentally – challenging it to be 'worthy' – I let the music speak to me, to inform me of who we really were as a nation at that time," he says. "And the music spoke eloquently. That's what won me over."
And now he's giving it a chance to win you over – for you to hear the rousing spirit of Billings' "Chester," which the Continental Army adopted for its anthem and which some feel should be our national anthem; the daring dissonance that Billings employs, more than a century before Charles Ives; the disarming simplicity of Hopkinson's early art song and the full-throated optimism of his oratorio; the hymns and folk songs that lifted spirits as a new nation was born out of war.
"This is largely a war simply to rid ourselves of British rule and taxes," Womer says. "But the seeds of future greatness are there – mostly in the first paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence: 'that all men are created equal,' 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' We are not yet a great nation but have the potential to be" – a potential you can also hear in the music loved and played by that first great American band.