Music: Musical Societies
Music: Musical Societies
Private Musical Societies. After a lull during the Revolution, Americans’ interest in concert music continued to grow as it had before the war. Musical societies sprang up in cities throughout America and played an important role in promoting the performance of classical music. Private musical societies such as the St. Cascilia Society in Charleston served a social and musical function. Membership was by invitation only. At society meetings members and professional musicians performed music together for invited guests, with a staged ball to end the evening. Similar organizations were formed in other cities, including the Musical Society of New York (1791) and the Philharmonic Society of Boston (1809). These private societies formed the basis for later public orchestras, but at the time their exclusiveness reflected and reinforced the elite character of patronage for instrumental concert music in early America. Only the wealthy possessed the means to develop and indulge a taste for such music, for the cost of acquiring and learning to play musical instruments was beyond the means of most ordinary individuals. In fact, most of the professional musicians who performed classical instrumental music in this period were immigrants from Europe, revealing the nation’s dependence on Europe for its concert music. Likewise, virtually all the classical instrumental
music performed in early national America was written by European composers.
The Handel and Haydn Society. Not all musical societies were so exclusive. The Handel and Haydn Society in Boston attracted large audiences to its public concerts. The society grew out of a “Peace Jubilee” organized in Boston by English-born composer and organist George K. Jackson in February 1815 to celebrate Washington’s birthday and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which formally ended the War of 1812. This celebration brought together the greatest number of musicians ever assembled in the city to perform works by George Frideric Handel and various other composers. In the month after this triumphant concert, a group of local musicians and patrons—Gottlieb Graupner, Augustus Peabody, John Dodd, George Cushing, and Matthew Parker—decided to form a musical society to offer similar events periodically. They officially adopted a constitution for the Handel and Haydn Society on 26 April 1815.
Music and Cultural Progress. In the preamble to their constitution the founders linked the organization to the nation’s political and cultural progress, arguing,” While in our country almost every institution, political, civil, and moral, has advanced with rapid steps, while every other science and art is cultivated with a success flattering to its advocates, the admirers of music find their beloved science far from exciting the feelings or exercising the powers to which it is accustomed in the Old World.” Seeking to advance cultural nationalism by promoting a deep admiration for European culture, the Handel and Hayden Society brought together singers from choirs throughout the area to give concerts of sacred music, particularly the music of Handel and Haydn. At its first concert, on 25 December 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society performed selections from Haydn’s Creation and various oratorios by Handel, concluding with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.
Charles Hamm, Music in the New World (New York: Norton, 1983);
Charles C. Perkins, John S. Dwight, and W. F. Bradbury, History of the Handel and Haydn Society, 2 volumes (Boston: Mudge, 1883, 1893);
O. G. Sonneck, Early Concert-Life in America, 1731–1800 (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Hartel, 1907).