Jonas Chickering: The Life and Legacy of an Important Historical Figure You Probably Have Never Heard Of

After spending a solid century or so focusing on issues surrounding settlement, local politics, and a good old fashioned war for independence, the new America was finally ready to tackle “the good stuff” (A.K.A. the development of a nationwide practice of music). While the reforms of sacred music launched efforts to create music based education in schools and the constantly evolving state of folk music struck the heart strings of different American communities and cultures in the early nineteenth century, there still lacked a realistic and affordable market for purchasing family instruments. How, you may wonder, did earnest, well-adjusted middle class early Americans perform their favorite appropriated spirituals and secular but not sacred Billings hymns? The sad truth is: they simply couldn’t…

That is, until our good friend Jonas Chickering entered the musical scene!

Born and raised in the heart of New England, Chickering spent the first chunk of his career in small piano manufacturing partnerships, cranking out around 30-40 pianos a year. It wasn’t until 1830, when he joined forces with a wealthy Boston shipping merchant by the name of John Mackay, that he was able to create an affordable, international market of square, cabinet upright, and grand pianos. Not only did Chickering lay down the base of the American piano manufacturing system, but he also, with the help of cohort Alpheus Babcock, developed a revolutionary one-piece cast-iron frame that gave the piano a higher resistance to the state’s harsher climate and allowed for higher tension in the strings, resulting in richer tones.

My purpose in writing on this seemingly historically insignificant 19th century piano developer and distributor is not to offer a thinly veiled biography, but to establish the importance of Chickering’s work in his time. While singing schools and music education systems spread like wildfire in the late 1700’s/early 1800’s, there still was very few means for the “common” middle class society to enjoy music through practice and performance. Especially in an era of America where folk music was being compiled and distributed into the hands of individuals, Chickering’s development and market for an affordable, durable piano was crucial in a time that lacked professional and amateur musicians alike. Since Chickering’s company became a global business in 1851, it is estimated that the amount of piano’s sold to individuals has gone from 1 in 4,800 Americans to 1 in 252 by the year of 1910. This is absolutely vital to the stories of countless musicians, including Pete Seeger, who was inspired by folk music that was performed by his parents at a young age. Chickering helped music become a common, daily occurrence in an average American household, and as a result is partially responsible to the pianos located in my own and most, if not all, of the consumer’s of this blogpost’s childhood homes.

As a closing statement for the story of Chickering, I feel as if it’s worth mentioning several primary sources that disclose to us the appreciation and praise that fellow musical visionaries had for the piano maker’s impact. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, an influential and well known pianist and composer in the 19th century says the following of Chickering’s piano:

“I like their tone, fine and delicate, tender and potetic.” [addtionally, it allowed him to achieve] “tints more varied than those of other instruments.”

In addition to receiving praise from fellow musicians and prestigious honors (his square piano won a medal and was displayed at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851), Chickering received a posthumous tribute in the equally booming sheet music market. In a publication of a piece entitled “Funeral March, Op. 10 in C Minor: Composed as a Sincere Tribute of Respect To the Memory of Jonas Chickering,” composer William R. Babcock offers his condolences not only through music, but with an additional portrait, a not to his family, and a humbling illustration of angels surrounding his grave. It is clear that Chickering not only gave the gift of music to countless Americans, but was also praised on the quality and impact of his work.

 

SOURCES

Babcock, Wm R. “Funeral March.” 164.019 – Funeral March. | Levy Music Collection. Accessed October 23, 2017. http://levysheetmusic.mse.jhu.edu/collection/164/019.

Crawford, Richard. Americas musical life: a history. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005

Cynthia Adams Hoover“Chickering.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University Press, accessed October 23, 2017http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/05571.

Our Wild Indians: Thirty-three years’ personal experience among the Red Men of the great west – Chapter XXVII

In Our Wild Indians1, Richard Irving Dodge talks about his experiences “living among the Red Men of the great west.” Published in 1882, Dodge focuses on his time in Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas. Chapter XXVII focuses specifically on Indian music, musicians, instruments, and songs, so it is naturally of particular interest. One of the first things one notices upon reading through the (surprisingly brief, given the breadth of its topic) chapter, is how many ways Dodge succumbs to all the mistakes modern musicologists try to avoid. Dodge’s writing is the epitome of “not woke” and could probably be used as a textbook example of what not to do as a musicologist: he conveys clearly (and seemingly unintentionally) his belief in Western cultural superiority throughout.

All that being said, Dodge’s writing is not without its uses, and is one of the more engagingly-written accounts, to me at least, of interactions between Natives and Westerners. Dodge’s writing is highly descriptive and presents and interesting first person perspective on music that otherwise might be hard to come by. Furthermore, he deserves credit for acknowledging that when having his friend transcribe the music, he was forced to “reduce this music to score.” Though this is followed immediately by “The general similarity is so great that I give only a few illustrations,” I’ll give Dodge the benefit of the doubt in believing that he recognized that such music existed in a form that was not well-suited to be transcribed into Western notation. It really is a pity that the overall tone of the chapter can be captured so concisely by a quote from his transcriber, Mr. Aschmann, who says:

“The rhythm of Indian music is, as a whole, very poor. Almost every song keeps within the limits of one octave, without change or effort for harmonious melody. It is very seldom, however, that they bring in notes from different keys, or make other innovations sufficient to make the music discordant or unpleasant to listen to.”

According to Mr Aschmann, it would seem that the only thing more seldom than modal mixture in Native music is the absence of Western condescension when describing it.

 

Beach’s Variations and the Success of the American Female Composer

Amy Beach (September 5, 1867–December 27, 1944) was an American composer and pianist. She was primarily self-taught in composition and was the first successful female composer of large works as well as the first president of the Society of American WomenComposers. She worked to further the works of young composers and was also known as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach” at many of her concert piano performances.

This is the cover of a manuscript being held in the Amy Cheney Beach Collection, which is housed in the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections of the University of Missouri - Kansas City.

This is the cover of a manuscript being held in the Amy Cheney Beach Collection, which is housed in the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections of the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

Amy Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60 was one of many great works she composed for piano. Based on songs “of unknown origin” collected by Reverend and Mrs. William W. Sleeper during their time living as missionaries in the Balkan region, the variations play upon “O Maiko Moya,” “Stara Planina,” and “Nasadil e Dado,” among other Balkan folk tunes. (Beach did not collect any of the folksongs her works were based on.) The variations employ switches between different themes to make up their complex texture.

The following is a loose translation of the text of “O Maiko Moya,” which is the first theme introduced in the work. Although there is no text to be sung or read with this work (this is a piano work, after all) this is important to the structure of the work and is suggestive of the overall tone of the variations and the cultural background that they were based on.

“O my poor country, to thy sons so dear,

Why art thou weeping, why this sadness drear?

Alas! thou raven, messenger of woe,

Over those fresh grave moanest thou so?”

The different folk songs do not all have to deal with Balkan nationalistic pride, rather, some texts relate to the mountains, or a story of a grandfather planting a small garden. As is the case in any piece written as a theme with variations, the variations gradually move away from the original motivic elements and provide new context for different themes.

In her analysis of Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, Dr. Adrienne Fried Block suggested that Beach borrowed from Beethoven’s tonal scheme for his Six Variations, op. 34. Beethoven’s Variations was one of the pieces that Beach regularly performed in her solo piano performances and one of the few variations that she regularly played throughout her career. It makes sense then, that this piece had such an effect on her own music. The Balkan Themes were in minor, which affected the tonal adjustments she made to the piece and prevented her from using Beethoven’s Variations structure exactly as it is (it should be noted that the speculation that Beach borrowed from Beethoven is a part of Dr. Block’s correspondence to a E. Douglas Bomberger).

Overall, Beach’s Variations are lively, yet melancholy in mood. Beach was known to incorporate romanticism and delayed resolution into her work, later on moving away from tonality. It is no surprise that Beach has been declared the first successful American female composer of large-scale music, although I think it would be interesting to explore the published music of other female composers and try to understand where they “fell short” of the success of their male counterparts, causing America to have to wait until the late 1800s for a female composer of Beach’s accomplishment.

 

Beach, Amy. Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60. Boston: Arthur P. Schmidt, 1906. http://javanese.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/0/0f/IMSLP08550-Beach_-_Op.60__Variations_on_Balkan_Themes.pdf.

Beach, Amy. Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60. Performed by Virginia Eskin. Composed 1904.

Bomberger, E. Douglas, and Adrienne Fried Block. “On Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60.” American Music 11, no. 3 (1993): 368-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3052509.