Amateur Music-Making in the Early Republic

In a new book, Glenda Goodman, Assistant Professor of Music, probes how hand-copying musical compositions and amateur performance shaped identity and ideas in the post-Revolutionary War period.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

By Katelyn Silva

The U.S. is in a state of upheaval and flux, disrupted by an international pandemic, a national reckoning on race, and the transition to a new presidential administration. After the Revolutionary War, Americans were similarly off balance after experiencing an intense period of violence and change. In her new book, Cultivated by Hand, Glenda Goodman, Assistant Professor of Music, looks at how white Americans in the Early Republic used amateur music-making—the process of hand-copying musical compositions into bound books and performance—as a means of making sense of their role in a new nation as educated and culturally sophisticated citizens, documenting their lives, and forming ideas about gender, social class, and race.

Glenda Goodman, Assistant Professor of Music

Photo credit: Eric Sucar

While conducting archival research from the 18th and 19th century, Goodman found detailed, annotated manuscripts of bound music, each distinct with their own stories to tell about an often underexamined period in American music scholarship. This discovery birthed the idea for her book.

“I set out to understand why individuals during this period would undergo the laborious task of copying other peoples’ music by hand, particularly when printed music was available,” explains Goodman who rarely found original compositions in the archival books. “What did hand-copying music and the performance of those compositions signify to these amateur musicians at that time?”

Cultivated by Hand is organized around the experiences of real people, focusing on six white women and three white men whose lives were influenced by and documented through their amateur music-making. Goodman maps the characters’ lives—education, courtship, marriage, child rearing, family obligations, death, and mourning—through music-making. She probes her characters’ motivations, including societal influences, identity formation, and the desire for themselves (and their new nation) to appear pious, tasteful, or learned.

Through the book, Goodman also demands that musical historians take notice. “Music historians should pay attention to these amateur musicians and their music books because the artifacts themselves are very individualized, creative, and unique,” she says. “That creativity doesn't come in the form of original composition but in the labor of the actual copying and in the performances that these books engendered. It really shifts the focus to amateur musicians who haven't been given a ton of credit in music history and the material record of these manuscript books, which are fascinating in terms of the insights they provide into individual peoples’ lives.”

One individual whose life is illuminated is Sarah (Sally) Herreshoff née Brown (1773-1846) who was from an elite family in Providence, Rhode Island. Her father was one of the founders of Brown University and made his fortune as a merchant and slave trader. Sally Brown had a deep interest in music and an extensive music book collection, which was unusual at the time, says Goodman, but possible for a woman of her enormous wealth.

“Women during this time are often depicted as being coquettish or silly and using music as a frivolous seductive technique. There’s a lot of misogyny in that interpretation.”

What role did music play in a white, wealthy woman’s life in the Early Republic? Goodman explains that the pervading perception after the Revolutionary War was that a woman like Brown would undertake music-making and performance because it was an “acceptable feminine or ornamental accomplishment,” oftentimes used as a tool for attracting a suitable husband. Goodman’s research begs to differ.

“Women during this time are often depicted as being coquettish or silly and using music as a frivolous seductive technique. There’s a lot of misogyny in that interpretation,” she says. “What I found is that the act of copying music into bound books was not silly but was felt to be a meaningful exercise. If the only reason women were practicing amateur music-making was to be seductive, they wouldn’t have done so much of it. They could have adequately learned to play a few pieces, but they copied many, many more. There’s something about the discipline of practicing and copying that was appealing and was also approved of as a more meaningful way to spend your time rather than, say gossiping or reading novels.”

Through Brown’s music books, Goodman also found music-making served the purpose of archiving life’s joys and tragedies. Brown annotated her marriage, the birth of a son, and the deaths of her brother-in-law, mother, sister, and her husband, who committed suicide. It’s also clear through the annotations, says Goodman, that Brown really enjoyed music.

“The music my ‘cast of characters’ were copying and performing is totally delightful. The annotations show there were certain songs that these amateurs particularly enjoyed, which I think validates that pleasure is really important and not everything has to be functional and transactional. For example, Sally Brown was enthusiastic about the simple, sentimental British songs popular at the time, and I think that music meant so much to her because it was an enjoyment shared with her husband and children,” says Goodman. “Affirming that just enjoying music matters seems simple, but it’s also kind of radical to say that a woman at this time could enjoy music-making without it serving a larger end.”

Currently, Goodman is working on new research on Christian sacred music and settler colonialism. She’s interested in the period after the Seven Years’ War when Britain was the main colonial force in what would become the United States. She’s working on the role of Protestant music and hymns in the lives of Native Americans who converted to the religion and how hymnals, like music books, serve as material records of a specific moment in history.

“I see my book and this new project as connected. They both make explicit the ways in which white European musical traditions took root in what became the United States. By showing exactly how and why that happens, we can stop taking it for granted and also stop assuming that it's the only music history that is available in the 18th-century in the United States.”