88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

Most early colonists purchased their pianofortes from London. The first piano built in America was the work of Philadelphia’s John (Johann) Behrent in either 1770 or 1775 (sources differ, as history, like music, tends to shift and modulate). But manufacture of the instruments was slow, so that by 1800 there were only approximately 50 pianos among the 30,000 residents of Boston.

Sheet music for the piano was published primarily for household and other amateur performances and consisted largely of patriotic marches and anthems, love songs and sentimental ballads, as well as a wide variety of dances including polkas, gavottes, quicksteps, hornpipes, waltzes, and mazurkas. There were also programmatic works (battle music, hunting songs in “la chasse” style, and depictions of nature), variations on popular tunes, excerpts from operas and musicals, a few rondos and sonatas, medleys, and tutorial books.

In pre-Revolutionary War America, playing the piano was a pastime for citizens who usually made their actual living working at a manual trade; immigrant composers arriving in the 1780s (most after the Treaty of Paris in 1783) were the first musicians to support themselves giving concerts, publishing, teaching, and from theatre and church-related employment.

A lovely example of the simple early American compositional style is the lyrical “Lesson” (circa 1757) by John Palma (née Palmas). This touching piece—written using excellently crafted two-part counterpoint—unfolds in an Andante cantabile tempo; the double-dotted French overture-type rhythm shows that the composer was probably familiar with Händel. In our time, this piece was discovered written in a manuscript book kept by Francis Hopkinson, who is acknowledged as the first native-born American composer. Judging from an entry in George Washington‘s personal ledger, it is likely that he heard Palma’s performance of this piece at the first ever advertised concert in Philadelphia (January 25, 1757).

Immigrant composers from Europe naturally brought the influence of their teachers and associates with them. Alexander Reinagle arrived in 1786 from Scotland and spent his first two years in New York as a teacher of piano, harpsichord, and violin. He then moved to Philadelphia, where his pupils included George Washington’s adopted daughter Nellie Custis. He revived the City Concerts in which works by both contemporary Europeans and Reinagle himself were performed. Reinagle always played the pianoforte rather than the harpsichord, and therefore may be considered America’s first professional pianist.

Circa 1790, Reinagle composed his four excellent Philadelphia Sonatas under the influence of C.P.E. Bach‘s “empfindsamer Stil” (sensitive style); Reinagle first met C.P.E. Bach in 1784 in Hamburg and had corresponded with him and the E minor Adagio movement of the impressive Sonata no. 2 in E Major is a fine example of his influence. The first and last movements have a wonderful fluidity and sunny joyfulness, and rank with the best keyboard works of Haydn and Mozart.

Reinagle’s Sonata no. 3 in C Major has many brilliant effects achieved with accented grace-notes, quickly rotating accacciatura-like figures, and punctuated chromatic notes separated by the same repeated broken octave (inverted pedal point). The third movement has fiery dramatic passages with low octave accents and diminished seventh chords, again suggesting the style of C.P.E. Bach.

The various emotive effects in works of this time signal the beginning of an interest in the timbral aspects of the keyboard. A few years previous to the Sonatas, Reinagle had published his popular Six Scots Tunes with Variations (Philadelphia, 1787), which clearly reveal this tendency. The engaging pieces—”Lee Rigg”, “East Nook of Fife”, “Malt Man”, “Black Jock (Gypsy Laddie)”, the plaintive “Laddie Lie Near Me”, “Steer Her Up and Had Her Gawn”—have accented grace notes, lively staccatos, biting dissonances, broken chordal figures (in the manner of Bach harpsichord concerti), with a wild sudden modal shift in the Coda of the last tune, all of which add spice. Inspired by traditional Scottish bagpipe playing, Reinagle also inserted a vertical double line notation over certain notes to indicate the mordent or inverted mordent figure still heard today in a bagpiper‘s embellishments.

The more plaintive Scottish folk melodies were Benjamin Franklin‘s favorite, and he frequently played them in duets with his daughter Sally. She would perform at the harpsichord and he would manage the simple melodies (the Reinagle variations would have been beyond his instrument) on his invention known as the “glass armonica” (later glass harmonica, or glassychord), a device that rotated tuned water glasses by means of a foot-treadle driven wheel. A wet fingertip held against each glass’s rim produced the ethereal pure tones that characterize the instrument.

Reinagle spent 15 years directing the pit orchestra for the New Company of Philadelphia and Baltimore, which divided its repertoire between spoken and musical works, and he was the first person to substitute the piano for the harpsichord in the pit. He composed a host of musical plays, comic operas, and pantomimes such as Slaves in Algiers or A Struggle for Freedom (1794), Auld Robin Gray or Jamie’s Return from America (1795), and A Wreath for American Tars or Huzza Again for the Constitution (1800). The democratic sentiments in these stage pieces also made their way into his piano works such as the Federal March performed during the Grand Procession street parade on July 4, 1788, in Philadelphia, The New President’s or Jefferson’s March, Madison’s March, Mrs. Madison’s Minuet (1796), etc.

The architecture of the piano continued to expand to accommodate the new expressiveness, which was celebrated in Reinagle’s unfortunately lost Concerto on the Improved Pianoforte with the Additional Keys (1794).

Reinagle’s former teacher Raynor Taylor arrived in Baltimore from England in 1792 and brought with him the further influence of Händel. An anecdotal story concerns Taylor’s hat, which fell into Händel’s open grave at the venerated composer’s funeral. Someone near the young Taylor is said to have comforted him, by commenting “Never mind, he has left you his brains instead.”

Taylor composed many ballad-operas including The Ethiop, several piano sonatas (including his Six Divertimenti, or Familiar Lessons for the Pianoforte of 1797 which are in sonata-allegro form), many dances for stage plays, and a symphony “to the grand gala of song, dance and pantomime … called the Birthday, or Rural fête.” Taylor’s “Pennsylvania March And Quick-Step” is a particularly interesting piece in the way that the quickstep imitates and varies the march theme. He was also a church organist noted for his improvisations, and an entertainer in vaudeville-like skits and musical revues, but it is for his tutorials and pedagogical works that he was best known. One of his piano pieces is the charming work “The Bells” which has varied descending lines and little ringing trills. This is another composition thankfully preserved in a manuscript book belonging to Francis Hopkinson. Shortly earlier, William Brown, about whom not much is known, had published his excellent set of three Rondos in 1787 which are recognized as the first secular keyboard music published in America, and which were dedicated to the influential Francis Hopkinson.

The Hopkinson notebooks also acted as a sort of time capsule repository for the Trumpet Air by James Bremner, who seems to have been Hopkinson’s music teacher. Bremner arrived in Philadelphia from England in 1763 and as a violinist was part of a music group—with Hopkinson on the harpsichord, Governor John Penn on violin, and other players on strings, French horn, and the German flute—that would gather in various Philadelphia homes for an evening’s concert. Typical of their repertoire would be the brief Trumpet Air which as the title suggests imitates characteristic brass gestures for that time with trills, grace note slides, extended trills as pedal points, and stark open fifths contrasted with softer, lyrical thirds. Bremner also authored the earliest surviving rondo written in America, his Lesson in B-Flat Major (1763, published after Brown’s rondos).

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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