To understand the music of George Washington’s time, it is necessary to know musical conditions in America from the days of the first settlers to the end of the eighteenth century. Although there was little music here in the years immediately following the first coming of the white men, it is not correct to assume that there was no considerable musical life in the Colonies by the time our nation asserted and won its independence. True, our ancestors were largely dependent on musical importations from abroad; yet concerts, ballad operas, and musical evenings in the home were frequent in the principal cities from 1750 on.
There were several attitudes toward music in America’s infancy. In New England the muse of song had a difficult road to travel. She was viewed suspiciously by the Puritans, who at first would allow no musical instruments, and would tolerate singing only as an aid to divine worship, and then only after bitter arguments as to the propriety of singing Psalms in church.
In New York, Pennsylvania and the South, music and secular diversions were more welcome than in New England, although the Quakers in Pennsylvania considered plays, games, lotteries, music and dancing alike, and advised all their members to have nothing to do with them.
To our present knowledge, there were no native-born composers of music until the time of Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), signer of the Declaration of Independence, treasurer of loans during the Revolution, judge of the Admiralty of Pennsylvania, and a great cultural influence in eighteenth century Philadelphia. Hopkinson, a friend of George Washington, is credited with being the first American composer. His songs were charming and reflective of the musical style and taste of the period, even though they may have lacked individuality.
The manuscript book containing Hopkinson’s first song bears the date 1759, one hundred and fifty years after the Jamestown colony was first established. The next composer to appear was James Lyon, (1735-1794), a clergyman who wrote a number of hymns, anthems and psalm tunes. In 1770, the year Beethoven was born, William Billings of Boston (1746-1800) published a book called the New England Psalm Singer, in which he included a number of his own compositions, among them some “fuguing pieces”, as he called them, crude attempts at the fugues of the masters. Billings had little training as a musician, but he was important for his desire to be original, and for the undoubted vitality he put into his own music, and that of his colleagues.
Soon after the appearance of Hopkinson, Billings and Lyon, other native composers appeared, and while none of them achieved anything that could be considered great, they planted the seeds of a native musical product which has developed to our own day. One of these musicians, Oliver Holden, published in 1793 a hymn-tune that has had continued life, and is known throughout the world as Coronation, sung to the words, “All hail the power of Jesus’ name”.
Throughout the eighteenth century there had of course been foreign musicians in America, who had come from abroad, and because of their superior training had exerted a strong influence on our musical life. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Moravian colony which was settled in 1741 enjoyed music that was unknown elsewhere in America. Intense music lovers, these Germans brought their instruments and their voices with them, and their orchestras and choruses performed the works of the masters in a manner worthy of the music. When Washington visited Bethlehem in 1782, he was serenaded by a trombone choir. Yet these Moravians were sufficient unto themselves, and mingled little with their neighbors. Their culture had but slight influence on the rest of America.
After the Revolution more foreign musicians came to our shores and by the time of the French Revolution they immigrated in wholesale quantities. Better trained than the colonial Americans, they naturally took musical life into their own hands, and their works soon took the place of American compositions on concert programs. Of course, most of the foreigners eventually became Americans themselves, and their descendants today can boast a long line of American ancestors; but for the time being they stifled much of the early effort in music. Many of these artists were English, some of them French, a few were Germans, although the great influx of German musicians belongs to the 19th century, the time of the revolutions in Central Europe.