The Search for the American Sound, 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Search for the American Sound


download Search for the American Sound – 1

When did American music become American? There are several answers, some absolutely assured, some a bit more tentative. In this miniseries, we will consider music in America even before composers began the search for the American sound.

In the beginning, the music of America was the music of those parts of Europe from which came all sorts of people to these shores. What is now Massachusetts rang out with the fervent sounds of “The Whole Booke of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Meter” (1640). Since musical instruments were not allowed in church, the leaders were often hard pressed to keep the pitch and even the tunes as they should be.

After 1700, organs began to be shipped over the Atlantic. At first they were little used, not because the congregations did not want them but because the leaders were reluctant to introduce anything that was new. The idea that the vocal lines should be printed along with the psalms met even more opposition, mainly because some of the Italian annotations were considered blasphemous. By 1720, this ban was relaxed a bit.

As more and more instruments were imported, singing and then dancing became acceptable to a degree. In fact, concerts began to be given, the earliest on record being played in the late 1720s. Five shillings would purchase a ticket for a Boston concert in 1731. By 1754, Boston had its own concert hall and by 1762 South Carolina had its first music society. What was played there was, of course, what was being played in similar venues in Europe, allowing for the time it took for the latest compositions to arrive and find their ways down the colonies.

downloadAmong the Dutch, Swedish and other non-English enclaves, music was played to please more eclectic tastes, but the influence was almost non-existent. For example, the music of the Moravians in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania sounded very much in the tradition of Bach—hauntingly lovely melodies in a powerful religious context. However, the Moravian influence on outside composers was nil.

In 1730, Benjamin Franklin published a collection of hymns, some of which are the earliest examples of music composed in America. However, they could not be distinguished from the European entries in any way.

Although some attempts at American opera had taken place, by far the most popular work was the ballad opera “The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay. This set the style for early American “musicals”: plays in which new lyrics were grafted onto familiar tunes, such as Handel’s “Hail, the conquering hero comes.” Part of the fun was letting the audience identify the original titles and composers, not too unlike a performance today by PDQ Bach!

download (5)
William Billings

Homegrown composers included Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), James Lyon (1734-1794), and William Billings (1746-1800). The new nation desperately needed heroes when the old English ones would not serve. Since King Arthur defended his country from the invaders of the north, we would glorify George Washington. Indeed, Washington’s early portraits show him realistically if a bit romanticized in military dress. After the Revolution, he was shown in full Roman style with garlands around his head and a consort of heavenly figures in the Baroque style.

Such visuals need music to match and men like Hopkinson were quick to respond with paeans in the Handelian style. American subjects; European music. How could it be otherwise?

With perfect Orwellian doublethink, as we moved into what is known as the Federalist period and continued to take over the land from the “savages,” we would still praise their nobility in songs like “The Death Song of the Cherokee Indians” (1787) with elevated lyrics that would not be out of place in a Dryden heroic play, which was then all the rage in England.

220px-Hail,_Columbia_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_21566A German immigrant named Philip Phile composed “The President’s March” around 1793; and it stands as a rare example of music still played today, but with the added lyrics that begin “Hail, Columbia, happy land.” It is, of course, in the good old Prussian military style.

So while American composers were conscious of the need for an American sound, they had no idea of how to find one. Writing about American subjects helped a little. However, it would take more intellectual intercourse with the other groups who did not live in Boston or South Carolina and whose songs were not those of the English theater or churches. It would take another 100 years, but the experiments along the way are fascinating to behold.

download (6)Recommended recordings: From New World records, “The Birth of Liberty: Music of the American Revolution” (80276-2), “Music of the Federal Era” (80299-2), “The Flowering of Vocal Music in America” (80467-2). From Telarc, “Lost Music of Early America: Music of the Moravians” (CD80482). On an independent label, “The Music Master’s Companion” and “The Second Companion,” R.P. Hale ( From WEM (WEMCD503), “Colonial & Revolution Songs with historical narration.”