Music was a big influence on the lives of America’s Founding Fathers.
- Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry played the fiddle. In fact, Jefferson is known to have practiced the violin for three hours a day for 12 years. He and Henry are noted to have played duets at parties.
- Benjamin Franklin was a star on the guitar, harp, viol da gamba, and the glass harmonica that he invented.
- Francis Hopkinson was a champ on the harpsichord.
- And George Washington was known for his finesse on the dance floor. He is said to have been a fan of chamber music, symphonies, oratorios, ballad-operas, and witnessed the first four-hand piano recital in America. As a general, he championed music in the Continental Army. “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music,” Washington noted. “Every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”
Perhaps Franklin’s harmonica, which plays musical tones by running a wet finger around the rims of glasses filled with water, nestles 37 such glasses onto a spindle. The player turns them with a foot pedal. Mozart got wind of it in Vienna, and was so enraptured that he created a couple of compositions for it. Franklin is quoted to have said, “Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction.”
But who was Francis Hopkinson? This Founding Father was a New Jersey delegate to the Second Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Known around the colonies as a writer of essays, satires, and poems — and an expert on the harsipchord. Among the songs he composed include, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” which is considered to be the first American art song.
While not a prominent figure in our history books, Hopkinson paled around with Jefferson, experimented with adding a keyboard to Franklin’s armonica (without success), and dedicated to the first president a suite of songs to “His Excellency George Washington, Esquire,” who responded by telling Hopkinson that he believes the composer’s works have “at least virtue enough in them … to melt the Ice of the Delaware and Potomack.”
In 1781, Hopkinson also delivered America’s first opera. Officially dubbed an “oratorial entertainment” by the author, “The Temple of Minerva,” has the personified spirits of America and France show up at the goddess of wisdom’s temple to ask her what lies ahead for the new nation, Columbia. Minerva praises the alliance of France and America, and allowing that as long as the two stand together for Columbia “great and prosp’rous shall she be.”