Thomas Jefferson as a Violinist and Advocate for Music Education

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, was also a violinist and strong advocate for music education. Family and holiday gatherings, solo performances, or as a way to have some time alone, the violin was important to him throughout his life.

His violin studies as a young man paid off during his courtship of his future wife, Martha Skelton. While she sang and played the harpsichord at parties, he would often join in, playing his violin and singing. Christmas celebrations at the White House and in his home, Monticello, included him playing the violin for family and guests.

According to Jefferson family tradition, as recorded by biographer Henry S. Randall, Jefferson’s musical ability dispelled the hopes of other suitors:

Two of Mr. Jefferson's rivals happened to meet on Mrs. Skelton's door-stone. They were shown into a room from which they heard her harpsichord and voice, accompanied by Mr. Jefferson's violin and voice, in the passages of a touching song. They listened for a stanza or two. Whether something in the words, or in the tones of the singers appeared suggestive to them, tradition does not say, but it does state that they took their hats and retired, to return no more on the same errand!

Jefferson and Martha Skelton were wed on January 1, 1772.

When time permitted, Jefferson played at least three hours a day. While he was a law student, he gave weekly concerts with other musicians. His music library at his home, Monticello, contained violin works by Corelli, Handel, Vivaldi, and other composers. His selected works by Corelli required an advanced level of skill due to advanced bowings and techniques for the left hand. He also had a violin technique book by Francesco Geminiani (1680-1762), The Art of Playing on the Violin, which further indicated his level of proficiency.

Jefferson’s Music Technique Book

Francesco Geminiani (1680–1762). Rules for Playing in a True Taste on the Violin German, Flute, Violoncello, and Harpsicord. . . .  London: J. Johnson, 1751. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (S. 4255) (40.00.00)

Music, according to Jefferson, was his “favorite passion” and the violin his preferred instrument. Jefferson was schooled in music at an early age and cultivated his love of music throughout his life. As an accomplished violinist and music aficionado, Jefferson owned four violins, including a so-called “kit,” an instrument small enough to fit neatly into a coat pocket. He was known to take his kit along on his travels to practice while away.

The instrument's body is very small, but its fingerboard is made long relative to the instrument's overall size in order to preserve as much of the instrument's melodic range as possible.

Many violinists in the eighteenth century used kits because of their portability. Thomas Jefferson owned at least two kits.

At home, he could play his other instruments as well as consult his personal copies of contemporary musical treatises such as this one by Francesco Geminiani. Jefferson rarely wrote in his books, but this book includes Jefferson’s inscription of Charles Burney’s discussion of violin technique.

Jefferson insisted that his daughters and granddaughters learn to play the violin. He hired Frances Alberti, an Italian immigrant, as a music tutor. Jefferson felt that a music education was “invaluable,” especially pertaining to young women, and that it provided “recreation” and “respite” from the concerns of the day, which would last through the rest of one’s life.

Monticello has several instruments on display that reflect the Jefferson household. In addition to violins, daughter, Martha, played harpsichord, and his other daughter, Maria, played guitar. He encouraged them not to neglect their music.

A violin owned by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States

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