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Classical Music in America

Thomas Eakins, Elizabeth at the Piano, 1875
This month's issue of Smithsonian magazine is given over to a survey of the iconic highlights of the American national museum's collection, 101 Objects that Made America. No one is likely surprised that classical music is almost completely ignored, represented solely by the fur coat worn by Marian Anderson when she gave her era-altering performance -- a mélange of opera selections and spirituals -- on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 (the coat is now in the Anacostia Community Museum). As usual, popular music stands in for all of music, with a guitar played by Chuck Berry and one of Irving Berlin's transposing pianos.

Of course, most of the big treasures of classical music in Washington are in the collection of the Library of Congress, but the National Museum of American History's collection of Music and Musical Instruments has several things that might reasonably have been included. Kenneth Slowik, the Curator of the Division of Culture and the Arts at the Smithsonian, would undoubtedly have other, likely better suggestions.

The first American classical music instruments were imported from Europe, but not long after the establishment of the United States, talented instrument makers set up shop on this side of the Atlantic. The NMAH has a square piano made by William and Adam Bent in Boston around 1800. The Bent brothers had a shop on Orange Street there around the turn of the century. This instrument, one of the oldest American keyboard instruments in the collection, has a compass of FF to f3, a single (Zumpe) action, leather hammers, double strings, with one hand stop, in wood frame and mahogany case.

An inventor named John Isaac Hawkins, in Philadelphia, patented a special type of piano in 1800, a small upright with a folding keyboard, small enough that he called it the "portable grand," pianino, or cottage pianoforte. Thomas Jefferson bought one of them, and the NMAH has an example, with felt hammers (originally leather), two pedals (moderator and swell, which opens shutters in the case below the keyboard), a wood frame with iron bars behind the soundboard, and a mahogany veneer case with metal carrying handles. The museum also owns a square piano made by Alpheus Babcock in Boston in the late 1820s.

Another possibility would be the John Albert "Concert Violin" in the NMAH collection, made in Philadelphia in 1876. Albert was born in Freiburg, Germany, but he became known as a violin maker after immigrating to the U.S. in 1848. The "Concert Violin," made of North American maple wood, won a prize at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Another great early American violin maker was Ira J. White of Boston, but the Smithsonian does not own an example.

Any of these objects could have been included in the Smithsonian issue as a sign of how Americans have always had musical instruments and classical music in their lives. They are a sign of American ingenuity and resourcefulness.

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