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Biography Francis Hopkinson, 1737-1791

Image: Francis Hopkinson, half-length portrait
[Francis Hopkinson, 1737-1791, half-length portrait, seated, facing left], Engraving by J. B. Longacre from the painting by Pine, [n.d.]. Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Francis Hopkinson has been acknowledged as a signer of the Declaration of Independence; a jurist; an inventor; an artist; an essayist; a scholar; a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's first class (1757); an organist; a psalmodist; and a harpsichordist. In addition to these talents, Hopkinson is also credited as America's first poet-composer, and his song "My Days have been so Wondrous Free" (1759) is regarded as the earliest surviving American secular composition. In fact, in the dedication to his Seven Songs (1788), Hopkinson declared "I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition."

Hopkinson appears to have begun his formal musical training, in the form of harpsichord lessons, at age seventeen. We do not know who his teacher was, but evidence suggests that it was James Bremner, a capable Scotch musician. While Hopkinson never became a virtuoso harpsichord player, he was a gifted amateur and gained quite a reputation among Philadelphia social circles. Hopkinson was also active in sacred music; he taught psalmody, compiled tune books for congregational singing, and substituted for his teacher Bremner as organist in Philadelphia's Christ Church in 1770.

Hopkinson's knowledge of the harpsichord extended to the mechanical properties of the instrument. Specifically, Hopkinson experimented with methods to improve the tone of the harpsichord, which was achieved by plucking the strings, usually with crow-quills. Hopkinson first substituted the crow-quills with metal tongues, then leather quills, and finally with velvet cork. In addition to his modifications to the harpsichord, Hopkinson also provided Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica with a keyboard, and invented the "Bellarmonic," an instrument consisting of a set of steel bells.

As far as Hopkinson's compositional activities are concerned, his earliest works appear to be an Ode to Music (1754), followed by his first song "My Days Have Been so Wondrous Free" (1759). This graceful little song appears in a collection of Hopkinson's manuscripts, dated 1759-60, which is housed in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. Nearly three decades later, Hopkinson's Seven Songs (actually eight, for the last song was added after the title page had been engraved) was published in Philadelphia; the collection was dedicated to Hopkinson's friend, George Washington.

In addition, Hopkinson composed an anthem, psalm settings and a number of secular pieces. He wrote an Ode in Memory of James Bremner (1780) and provided both the text and the musical arrangement for the "oratorical entertainment" America Independent or The Temple of Minerva (1781). It is not known whether The Temple of Minerva was a "dramatic cantata," performed, as was common practice for the time, with scenery but not acted, or if the work was staged as a miniature grand opera. In any case, Hopkinson has also been considered by some scholars to be either the first American cantata composer or the first American opera composer.

Further Reading

Sonneck, Oscar George Theodore. Francis Hopkinson: The First American Poet-Composer (1737-1791) and James Lyon: Patriot, Preacher, Psalmodist (1735-1794). New York: Da Capo Press, 1967.

Upton, William Treat. Art-Song in America: A Study in the Development of American Music. Boston: Oliver Ditson Co., 1930.