Chamber Music in 18th-Century America

The decades following the American Revolution saw the growth of cities and the cultural
accoutrements of city life. With increasing economic prosperity, Americans were gaining leisure time which allowed for cultural pursuits. A thriving concert scene enabled Americans to hear a great amount of the newest European and American music, while amateur music-making in the home increased the demand for music teachers and published scores. These conditions contributed favorably to the growth of chamber music in the young republic.


The flowering of domestic music-making prompted American publishing firms to begin
issuing a steady stream of songs, keyboard pieces, instrumental method books, and chamber pieces all tailored to the modest abilities of amateur performers. Manuscripts of chamber music compiled into copybooks as well as accounts of musical gatherings attest to the increasing participation of the upper classes in this "delightful recreation." Perhaps its most well-known and enthusiastic amateur practitioner, Thomas Jefferson may have been among its most talented, if indeed he, with his wife Martha, and his violin-partner Patrick Henry were able to play the difficult works of Corelli, Geminiani, Boccherini, and others he collected. Francis Hopkinson was another statesman with a love for chamber music and was also a composer of some ability.


Perhaps the most numerous and sophisticated performances of chamber music to take place in this country during this period occurred in the settlements of a unique American community: the Moravians, a religious sect originating from Germany and other german-speaking lands that established model communities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Music-making of all kinds was an integral part of their devotional and recreational activities. A regular aspect included collegia musica, amateur musical societies devoted to the weekly performance of chamber and orchestral works, which flourished in their settlements here, at a time when such institutions were dying out in Europe. Chamber music was important not only to domestic life of the period, but also to the growing concert life of American cities. Chamber music was always included in the earliest public performances, and, as the number and proficiency of professional musicians increased sufficiently to allow performance of orchestral works, chamber music continued to be performed alongside symphonies, concertos and vocal works. The end of the century saw a great influx of highly skilled musicians, many of whom were performers and composers of importance in their native lands. Attracted by the promise of steady employment in the theater orchestras and churches, the most talented of these became concert promoters, introducing the American public not only to the latest European chamber works, but to their own compositions, some of which they brought with them, and some of which were composed domestically.