By Washington’s time a variety of musical instruments was used in America. As early as 1761 Washington ordered a spinet from abroad. The harpsichord, and later the piano-forte, were found in many homes, and were used at concerts. Violins and cellos were well-known, and the so-called German flute was as necessary to a perfect eighteenth century gentleman’s outfit as his wig or powdered hair.
The concert programs of the day give an idea of the instruments that were most used, for many of them announce the instrumentation of the orchestras that performed, as well as the instruments used by soloists. We have already learned that Gualdo’s concert in 1769 offered solos on the violin, the German flute, the clarinet, the harpsichord, and the mandolino. Earlier than this, however, is an account of the music played in the church at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Day, 1743. The instruments used included the violin, the viola da braccio, the viola da gamba, flutes, and French horns. One of the earliest references to trombones comes from Bethlehem, when in 1754 a number of them were brought from Europe. It is recorded that one night in 1755 a number of trombonists at Bethlehem warded off an Indian attack by playing chorales. Trumpets, too, were known in America at an early date in the eighteenth century.
It has sometimes been stated that wood-wind instruments, the oboe and the bassoon especially, were not used to any extent until the latter part of the century, but this is not accurate, for there are early references to such instruments. In 1757 the Pennsylvania Gazette announced that Mr. Charles Love, an actor, was wanted in Virginia for running away from a gentleman of that state with a “small white horse”, and “a very good bassoon”.
In 1786 the proprietor of the Pennsylvania Coffee House in Philadelphia announced:
that by desire of several gentlemen, he has proposed for the summer season to open a Concert of Harmonial Music, which will consist of the following instruments, viz.
Two clarinets, Two bassoons, Two French horns, & One flute.
Another item from a later date indicated the standard type of orchestra used at concerts. At an affair at Oeller’s Hotel, Philadelphia, 1796, a supplementary orchestra of amateurs was used to augment the concertino, or small band of soloists which was constituted thus:
First violin and leader of the band Mr. Gillingham
Principal violoncellos Mr. Menel, Double Bass Mr. Demarque, Principal Hautboy [Oboe] Mr. Shaw, Tenor [Viola] Mr. Berenger, Bassoon and trumpet Mr. Priest,
Horns Messrs. Gray and Homman, Violins Messrs. Daugel, Bouchony, Stewart and Schetky.
Pianos were manufactured in America from 1774. Sometimes large orchestras were assembled for festivals, one of them particularly is worthy of comment – a charity concert in 1786 promoted by an English musician in Philadelphia, Andrew Adgate, performed by a chorus of 230 and an orchestra of 50.
There are several instruments at Mount Vernon which belonged to the Washington family – a flute, a citra or guitar, and the harpsichord which Washington bought for Nelly Custis. These were the instruments most often found in homes, and on which young people as well as adults were taught to play.
Several passages from two letters of a young New England girl of twelve years, who was studying at the school in Bethlehem, told her parents of her musical education. They were written in 1787:
“There are about thirty little girls of my age. Here I am taught music both vocal and instrumental. I play the guitar twice a day; am taught the spinet and forte-piano, and sometimes I play the organ.”
She also told of the music at the Bethlehem church services:”They sing enchantingly, in which they are joined with the bass viols, violins and an organ. To call the people into chapel four French horns are blown, with which you would be delighted. . . . After we are in bed, one of the ladies, with her guitar and voice, serenades us to sleep.”
She described the Moravian Christmas celebration: “We began with music. There were four violins, two flutes, and two horns, with the organ; which altogether sounded delightfully. The children sang one German and eight English verses . . . . Many of the neighboring inhabitants came to visit us . . . . We entertained them with music.”