- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Watch David and Ginger Hildebrand perform a piece from their early American music repertoire: They wear period costumes; their instruments are faithful reproductions; their music has been carefully researched and documented. It’s almost as if they’ve stepped right out of the 18th century.

One of the two will set you straight on that.

“A woman would not have played the violin unless she had no reputation to lose,” says Mrs. Hildebrand, violin in hand. “Harpsichords and guitars were considered women’s instruments.”

Mrs. Hildebrand and her husband, who lace historical commentary into performances on the hammered dulcimer, the English guitar, the spinet harpsichord — and yes, the fiddle — are among the foremost interpreters in the country today of Revolutionary-era American music.



They play at museums, historical societies and universities, appear often at Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon, and have contributed to television series such as PBS’ “Liberty” and “Rediscovering George Washington.” Their Independence Day performances tomorrow at Mount Vernon are highlights of a Fourth steeped in music all over the capital, from the first president’s home to the Washington Monument.

• • •

But don’t expect these evocations of the 18th century to convey the sense of a full-blown nation. Much of the Colonies’ nascent patriotism was still in great part derivative.

“Yankee Doodle,” for example, was initially — circa 1755 and the French and Indian War — a song sung by British soldiers to mock the Americans. The cheeky Colonials simply threw it right back at their oppressors. “Free America” is just new words — attributed to Dr. Joseph Warren of Boston at some time in the 1770s — to “The British Grenadiers.”

Even the song considered the first patriotic American song — “The Liberty Song,” written in 1768 by John Dickinson, author of “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” a drafter of the Articles of Confederation and later governor of Pennsylvania (and the man for whom Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., was named) — simply set new words to the anthem of the British Royal Navy, “Hearts of Oak.” It was praised even so by John Adams in 1769 as an “excellent mode of cultivating the sensations of freedom.”

So as much as we would like to believe that the music of the Revolutionary period was uniquely American, a sort of musical underpinning for a fledgling nation, the reality is far less clear-cut.

“They looked for what was popular in London,” says Mr. Hildebrand, an early-music specialist who holds a doctorate in musicology from the Catholic University of America.

Music in early America had much to do with the social conventions of the time. It was functional. Instrumental music was designed to get a body moving, either on the march or on the dance floor. Vocal music was frequently used for propaganda purposes with different texts that could be zipped in or out at will. And choral music was usually participatory: Sung either in church or in singing schools and singing societies designed for that purpose, it had no audiences in the usual sense.

Instruments also reflected social class. Only the wealthy could afford expensive instruments like the harpsichord or the fortepiano. Slaves would play banjos and drums. And interestingly enough, says Mr. Hildebrand, the violin crossed class lines. Everybody — or at least every man — could aspire to play it.

• • •

So what was George Washington hearing? Quite a number of things, according to his diaries. While he professed that he could neither “sing…nor raise a note,” Washington was clearly a music lover who took in balls, the theater, musicals and military performances as he traveled around the country. He even owned a dog called “Musick.”

“Stay’d all night to a Ball & set up all Night,” Washington wrote in his diary for Oct. 6, 1768, in a notation available through the Library of Congress’ American Memory Web site. (He also lost 19 shillings at cards and paid five shillings so that his stepson could attend a play.)

As a teenager, Washington paid for dancing lessons, says Mary Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon.

“Other families were learning to dance early,” she says. “But Washington’s father died when [George] was 11, so he didn’t have the same kind of upbringing that others did.”

By the time he was living at Mount Vernon, however, he could cut quite a figure on the dance floor. Records of period balls include mention of Washington leading out the leading lady in the first minuet, or dancing a cotillion with the wife of one leading political figure or another.

“He was an incredible self-made person,” says Kate Van Winkle Keller, author of numerous books on music and dance in early America. “He didn’t have the advantages of other people, yet he was able to pick up a whole lifestyle of movement and gesture and pose.”

These were intricate, sometimes hard-to-learn dances characterized by set figures and fancy footwork. Often, they would last well into the small hours of the morning.

What about Martha?

“There are no references to her actually dancing,” says Mrs. Thompson. “But there probably would have been references if she didn’t dance at all, because that would have been unusual.”

• • •

Dancing for pleasure was not always the only thing going on. For 18th-century elites, dance was used for display purposes, not for recreation.

“They were networking,” says Mrs. Keller. “That top 10 percent were the 18th century version of the country club set.”

In the area surrounding Mount Vernon, dancing and music instructors taught the children of planters— and sometimes the parents — the latest dances.

What if you weren’t a wealthy colonist? The growing middle class increasingly tried to replicate dancing in the style of the elites. Still, says Mrs. Keller, it’s unlikely that farmers or frontiersman would have done the same.

“They danced mostly jigs and reels,” she says. “No farmer was going to stand around waiting for 10 minutes to take his place in the minuet.”

Rich and not-so-rich could come together at taverns in Alexandria. In 1771 Washington hired a black fiddler to help him celebrate his re-election to the Virginia Assembly. His birthnight celebration in 1798, held at Gadsby’s Tavern, a more upscale establishment, was considered the social event of the season.

• • •

Those from different social classes might also have had occasion to go to the theater, although they would clearly have sat in different sections. Washington was an ardent theatergoer who once, during a sojourn in Annapolis in 1771, attended four performances in five days.

Ballad operas from England, pieces that often included popular song and dance tunes, were prevalent in 18th century American theaters. These included John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” and William Shields’ “The Poor Soldier,” of which Washington was especially fond.

Many theatrical performances of the time, however, were not complete productions in the way that 21st-century theatergoers understand them.

“They were good at mixing up musical genres,” says Denise Gallo, a music specialist at the Library of Congress and adjunct professor of music history at Catholic University. “You might hear the first and four movements of a symphony, with lots of different things in between. It was more like a variety show.”

At home, amateur musicians would perform excerpts from ballad operas, dances and other popular tunes of the time. Nelly Custis, Washington’s step-granddaughter, was clearly the musician of the household, entertaining family and friends on a harpsichord, which her doting grandpapa had purchased for her from London for $317.43 in 1793.

In one of her music books, she’s crossed out the word “British” in a ballad and replaced it with “American.”

• • •

She was not alone in altering the text to suit her taste. Even before the Revolution, Colonial Americans were altering the lyrics of popular songs to suit their needs, as Dickinson did with “Hearts of Oak.”

During the Revolution, many texts fitted to popular tunes celebrated battles and the personal accomplishments of military figures. Tunes like “Stony Point” commemorated Gen. Anthony Wayne’s capture of that Hudson River fort in July of 1779.

The first American music, per se, was not in the melody, but in the words.

So when did the first American melodies appear? Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, lays claim to the privilege. In 1759, he put music to the popular poem, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous.” A talented composer and organist, he mentioned his earlier effort when he dedicated a set of harpsichord pieces to Washington in 1788.

“However small the Reputation may be that I shall derive from this Work, I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition.”

Whether Hopkinson actually was the first American to write music is a matter of some debate among musicologists. His sound, though, was not distinctively different from the music that was coming out of Europe.

Sometimes, it was enough to claim a connection with Washington, in a sort of musical “Washington slept here.” Pierre Landrin Duport, for example, a French immigrant, wrote several minuets that were named for performances in Washington’s presence.

To hear an “American” sound, you would have to go north, to Boston, where William Billings (1764-1800) was composing pieces for unaccompanied choir that departed from the British musical tradition in very real way.

Billings composed for voices without organ or other keyboard accompaniment, in part because of the Puritan injunction against instrumentation in church. (Organs were introduced in Congregationalist churches only in the 1790s).

The lack of the grounding pitch that such an instrument would provide results with the uniqueness of Billings’ sound. He composed the voice parts separately, layering one over the other to produce an almost Renaissance-style harmony. And the open fifth favored by Billings would later be used by Aaron Copland to produce his distinctly American sound. Once instruments became more accessible, Billings’ music fell out of favor.

• • •

In any event, Washington was probably more familiar with the music of a military band than he was with any of Billings’ compositions.

Pieces like “The President’s March,” composed in 1789 for Washington’s first inauguration, might have been performed by a military “band of music.” That’s distinct from the fife and drum corps that characterized regimental life in the 18th century.

“Bands of music” were frequently hired by the officers of the regiment in order to provide an evening’s entertainment.

During the first Independence Day celebrations in 1777 in Philadelphia, music was provided by a band of Hessian soldiers captured at Trenton the previous Christmas. A year later at Valley Forge, members of “Proctor’s Band of Music” were paid 15 shillings to play as part of the celebration of Washington’s birthday.

Fife and drum corps, on the other hand, were made up primarily of untrained youngsters, some as young as 12 or 13. Their music was for a very different purpose.

“They were used to relay commands to the troops,” says Master Sgt. Billy White, head librarian and fifer with the Old Guard’s Fife and Drum Corps at Fort Myer, a unit established in 1960 to recreate the sound and style of an 18th century fife and drum unit.

The Old Guard is the Army’s oldest active infantry unit, beginning as the 3rd Infantry in 1784.

One of Washington’s first actions as commander in chief of the Continental army was to arrange for a fife and drum corps within the requisite military units. The calls played by fifers and drummers were designed to spark action by troops — move right, left, advance, retreat, etc. Because of the nature of the instruments — the fifes had a high, piercing sound and the drums were quite loud — such calls could be heard over the sounds of battle where voice commands would be lost.

Master Sgt. White says this method of commanding the troops began with Swiss mercenaries in Europe in the 15th century and then was adopted and adapted by the various European armies themselves. Because many Continental soldiers had served with the British army during the French and Indian conflicts, they were familiar with the system.

“Troops were taught to recognize a tune with the fife alone, the drum alone, or both together,” he says. “So if one or the other were to get shot you would still know what to do.”

Of course, today’s players are a little older than their 18th century counterparts. When they perform as part of the Military District of Washington’s Twilight Tattoo, their job is to entertain the crowd, not move it around. But hearing “Fisher’s Hornpipe” or “Soldier’s Joy” might just get you doing something else.

You might just end up dancing.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide