Parlor and Concert Stage

Music performance in the United States takes place both at home and on the concert stage. Music written for each of these venues has been of equal importance to the development of American music. The performance of secular music in the United States developed, just as it had many centuries earlier in Europe, along two parallel paths. First, musical gatherings in the private homes of the musical elite beginning in the mid-eighteenth century brought together the best musical talent that major cities, such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, had to offer. These gatherings would typically feature performances by local musicians of chamber music and song chosen from the popular European repertoire of the day such as the chamber music of seventeenth-century Italian composer, Arcangelo Corelli and excerpts from the operas of George Frideric Handel. These private musical gatherings eventually led to the establishment of local music societies or philharmonic societies, which sponsor music performances. One of the oldest extant examples of a philharmonic society in the U.S. is the Philharmonic Society of New York, which was founded in 1842 by Ureli Corelli Hill and would later become known as the New York Philharmonic.

Playlist

Five recordings from Library of Congress collections, ranging from classical arias to parlor songs to minstrel tunes, underscore American audiences' appetite for vocal music both at home and at the theater.

  • Angels ever bright and fair

    This aria from George Frideric Handel's opera Theodora, is given a slow and stately performance by the soprano Lucy Isabelle Marsh.

  • Old Folks at Home

    In this 1912 recording of a famous song by Stephen Foster, Elsie Baker performs with a lusty contralto accompanied by orchestra.

  • Dixie

    Daniel Decatur Emmett's popular tune about the South is given a jaunty performance as a duet by bass vocalist Frank C. Stanley and tenor Bryan G. Harlan.

  • Massa's in de cold, cold ground

    Stephen Foster's well-known parlor song is performed by contralto Marguerite Dunlap. The recording dates from 1912.

  • Gems from Flora Bella

    A medley of popular tunes from the musical theater production Flora Bella by composers Charles Cuvillier, Milton E. Schwarzwald and lyricists Victor Schertzinger, Peter Waxman and Earl Carroll. Featuring the Victor Light Opera Company.

Second, staged performances of English ballad operas began to draw Colonial audiences as early as 1735, when the first theatrical season in Charleston, South Carolina was opened with Flora, or Hob in the Well, a 1729 British work with text by Colley Cibber and music by John Hippisley. English ballad operas were stage-plays with musical numbers interspersed throughout, much like the modern American musical. One of the most popular ballad operas of the Colonial period was The Poor Soldier (1783) with text by John O'Keeffe and music by popular English composer William Shield. There were two major opera companies producing ballad operas in the Colonial period. William Hallam's London Troupe, later re-named the Old American Company, began in Williamsburg, Virginia but moved to New York City. Their competition was the New Company, founded in 1792 by the singer/actor, Thomas Wignell and the composer Alexander Reinagle. The New Company regularly performed in the lavish, two thousand seat, New Theatre on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. These two companies established New York City and Philadelphia as centers for musical performance in Colonial America.

The vibrant musical life of cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston during the Colonial and Federal periods drew immigrant musicians to the United States many of whom opened retail music stores and taught music lessons. This helped to develop a more broadly educated musical public and a market for musical instruments and sheet music to be played in the home.

Arturo Toscanini gives a piano lesson to his grand-daughter, Sonia Horowitz, while his wife, Carla, looks on at their home in Riverdale, a suburb of New York City. 1944. Photoprint by Black Star. Prints and Photographs Division, LOT 3768

By the late 1830s, native-born American song composers, such as Stephen Foster and George Root were writing popular songs, known as Parlor Songs, many of which were written for amateur musicians to enjoy in the comfort of their own parlors, where many families kept their piano. The songs were written in a sentimental style, encompassing a wide range of topics from political strife to comic buffoonery. In addition to parlor songs, Foster and Root both composed songs for the minstrel show stage, a form of musical stage entertainment consisting of dancing, singing and comic skits performed, initially, by white performers with their faces blackened by burnt cork. Early troupes included The Virginia Minstrels, led by Daniel Emmett, the composer of the song "Dixie," who included "low-brow" bawdy humor in their performances. By contrast, the Ethiopian Serenaders promoted their performances as "blackface concerts" adding sentimental songs and excerpts from popular operas to their repertoire. This was a very successful formula as their first major concert was for President John Tyler at the White House in 1844. A tour of England a few years later by the Serenaders left a place in the United States minstrel circuit for Edwin P. Christy and his Christy's Minstrels to gain popularity. Christy was an advocate for the music of composer Stephen Foster and the troupe specialized in the performance of Foster's songs. Although the blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century are morally repugnant to modern audiences, they should be acknowledged as an important part of American musical history, giving rise to the vaudeville stage at the turn of the 20th century and eventually to modern American musical theater.