Unconventionally Conventional: Francis Johnson’s “Celebrated and much admired voice quadrilles”

Despite being a black composer and bandleader in Philadelphia during the early 19th century, Francis Johnson was one of the most celebrated American composers of his time, period. While this undoubtedly had something to do with the liberal and progressive atmosphere of Philadelphia, it was also due to his talent and the innovative and experimental nature of many of his compositions. However, some argue that he merely excelled in existing genres and was popular not because of his unconventional style, but precisely because he catered to white tastes.1 I found a copy of Johnson’s “Celebrated and much admired voice quadrilles” in the Sheet Music Consortium database, which Johnson dedicated to a wealthy local businessman.2 The subtitle proclaims that Johnson and his band found “much distinguished success” while embarking on what was the first tour of Europe by any American band, revealing that his celebrity was not limited to Philadelphia.1 The quadrille was an elaborate dance form that was very popular among the upper classes in the first half of the 19th century.3 The circumstances of this piece’s composition and publication reveal that Johnson’s success had much to do with his catering to upper-class interests.

However, the music itself shows Johnson’s willingness to experiment. Popular music written by Johnson and others at the time was often published in arrangements that could be performed by amateur pianists in the home.1 As a result, this quadrille, written for piano and voice, is mostly very simple rhythmically, but Johnson also embellishes the piece with a more lively and rhythmically complex cornet solo. Johnson annotates his music with instructions to the dancers, in addition to the lyrics. The very idea of a “voice quadrille” was a novel one, as the genre was traditionally instrumental.4 The lyrics themselves are lighthearted, with a “laughing finale” that literally calls for the singers to sing “ha ha ha”.

While the quadrille was a highly ritualized genre that was popular among the upper classes, Johnson’s ability to play with the conventions of that genre shows that his success was not only a result of catering to upper-class tastes but actually a result of subverting them. Johnson provides an interesting example of the kind of creative mixing of genres that occurred when black Americans came into contact with European music, as his success came from privilege and access to white upper-class society rather than the oppression of slavery. Johnson achieved a number of firsts among American composers, showcasing his boldness and willingness to go beyond what was expected.4 In fact, Johnson was the first composer writing for white audiences to address the topic of slavery and the suffering it caused, showing that in some cases his success was actually despite this boldness. While his education in and use of European musical styles perhaps reflected a desire to fit in with the white cultural elite, along with a desire by that elite to embrace a black person who had proved himself able to assimilate, Johnson’s success was ultimately due to his ability to engage in the musical styles of the cultural elite and bring something new to them.

Citations:

1 Griscom, Richard. “Francis Johnson: Philadelphia Bandmaster and Composer.” University of Pennsylvania Almanac, February 14, 2012. https://almanac.upenn.edu/archive/volumes/v58/n22/bandmaster.html.

2 Schnurmann, Claudia. “His Father’s Favored Son: David Parish.” Immigrant Entrepreneurship. German Historical Institute, August 22, 2018. https://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entries/his-fathers-favored-son-david-parish/#Between_Philadelphia_and_Ogdensburg_1806-1816; Johnson, Francis. Johnson’s Celebrated and Much Admired Voice Quadrilles. Geo. W. Hewitt and Co., Philadelphia, monographic, 1840. Notated Music.

3 Skiba, Bob. “Here, Everybody Dances: Social Dancing in Early Minnesota.” MN History Magazine. Accessed October 18, 2022. https://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/55/v55i05p217-227.pdf.

Kramer, Hayden James. 2022. “Six Works by Francis Johnson (1792–1844): A Snapshot of Early American Social Life.” Order No. 29162008, University of Maryland, College Park. https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/six-works-francis-johnson-1792-1844-snapshot/docview/2688578944/se-2.

William Grant Still for a White Audience

On July 23, 1936, William Grant Still made his debut in Los Angeles conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. The article I found on this, written by Lawrence LaMar, describes how “an outstanding history making triumph as been achieved.” This performance was only a couple of years after Still won the Guggenheim Fellowship award for “Land of Romance” and “Afro-Symphony Orchestra.” Our class has been looking at the impacts of black nationalism within “American” music and how it has shaped today’s music. This discussion couldn’t be held without William Grant Still and his “Afro-American Symphony.” Even during the 1930’s, the public knew of its impact and what was taking shape, and how it could change history in music. Out of the 20,000 seats at the Hollywood Bowl, 12,000 of them were filled. This sounded like an average amount of attenders based off how the author was describing it. However,

“about 250 of the 12,000 people assembled in the Hollywood Bowl that seats 20,000 were of the Race. This number, although small in comparison to the whole, represents an increase over past regular season bowl attendance of Negroes.”

 

It is interesting to read how 250 might not have been a large number of people “in comparison to the whole” but that it shows that persons of color are increasing in numbers for attending the bowl.
This article views William Grant Still and thus his pieces as valuably important for American and American music. The writer states, “Each of the gripping symphonies that conveyed the feeling of the Race American toward the land of his folklore was marvelously rendered by the great orchestra that responded readily under the left guidance of its first Race conductor.” I found that this article showed some of the feelings that the BIPOC community was feeling towards Still and his compositions. The article can be used to shed light on this aspect as well as the ideas of how that ties into the impact on American music.
Another interesting aspect of this article is the literal, physical context around it. Surrounding this column in the Chicago Defender are many more negative articles about “members of race.” Titles such as “State Picnic To Be Feature Of Kentucky Hanging” stand out instantly to the viewer upon opening this paper. The article on Still is captivatingly uplifting and hopeful right next to the article that paints such a horrific image for the BIPOC community.
Another aspect of the context around the article on Still is the emphasis on music that this community holds. Simply turning the page of this newspaper brings you to BOLD headlines you can view in the following photos.
Citations:
LaMAR, LAWRENCE F. “WM. GRANT STILL CONDUCTS SYMPHONY AT LOS ANGELES: 20,000 HEAR WORLD-FAMED COMPOSER IN DEBUT AT HOLLYWOOD BOWL; APPLAUSE DEAFENING.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Aug 01, 1936. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/wm-grant-still-conducts-symphony-at-los-angeles/docview/492575722/se-2?accountid=351.

Amy Beach: musician in spite of her family

Today many listeners of classical music are familiar with the music or at least the name of Amy Beach. A prodigy from a very young age who came to fame through her virtuosic piano performances made her lasting mark in her compositions. Her life was defined by her gender because women, especially those of Beach’s social standing, were not to support themselves. Even though her parents were distinctly aware of Amy’s talents, they stuck with the status quo plan for young women of the time: some formal schooling, lessons in the arts, and marriage.[1]

In her article published in many women’s magazines in the early 1900s she does not fault her family for so obviously holding her back when she had so much to do in music. Rather she saw her mother’s education style as a way to ease the young prodigy into music without becoming overwhelmed. Beach’s article almost exclusively focuses on the relationship between Amy and her mother, as well as her career as a performer and composer.[2]

Beach’s success as a musician almost depends on this sort of frame that women were expected to live in. There is no doubt that Beach could have done amazing things if afforded the right to a fancy musical education that men had available to them. However, her affluent family history and unique life story allowed (or forced) her to stand out among other women. I mention forced because Amy hardly had any choice in her study of music or the path it would take.[3]

Beach had the opportunity to become a self-taught musician after her little formal training because she did not have the duties of a domestic wife like many other women. After her husband’s death in 1910 she was able to take many tours of Europe and make her name even larger.

All of these facts make for a confusing picture of Amy Beach. On one hand we have a woman who is a prisoner in her time where women aren’t allowed to study music at high levels and must submit their wills to their parents and husbands. On the other hand we have Beach as a child prodigy who has led the way for other women composers after her and succeeded because of her circumstances, but could have thrived even more in a more accepting culture.

 

[1] Adrienne Fried Block, Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian, (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1998), 298.

[2] Judith Tick ed., Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 323-327.

[3] Walter S. Jenkins, The Remarkable Mrs. Beach, American Composer, (Warren: Harmonie Park Press, 1994), 66-68.