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

On October 7, 1857, the preternaturally gifted pianist popularly called “Blind” Tom Bethune gave his first public concert in his home state of Georgia at Columbus‘ Temperance Hall. Born into a family held in slavery in Harris County, Thomas Greene Wiggins was rather prodigious, able as early as the age of four to recreate tunes he had heard, on a piano owned by the Bethune family. Following the first concert, Tom Wiggins was exploited, before and after manumission times, by Colonel James Neil Bethune (a tragic story unfolded in Geneva Handy Southall’s excellent biography Blind Tom: Continually Enslaved). “Blind” Tom Bethune soon gained a reputation for his extraordinary abilities. At the height of his career, he could instantly recall and perfectly render thousands of compositions from Bach through composers of the Classical and Early Romantic periods. He improvised variations and fantasies on arias and popular songs and he composed over 100 piano and vocal works, which imitated natural sounds (The Rain Storm), machines (Imitation of a Railroad Train, Imitation of a Sewing Machine), and other musical instruments (Imitation of the Music-Box, Imitation of the Church Organ). “Blind” Tom was able to play, sing and recite musical and prose selections in many languages after hearing them only one time (he flawlessly reproduced an improvisation by another piano prodigy Josef Hoffmann whom Bethune had met in Boston; he also composed a piece entitled Imitation of Frederick Douglass’s Speech).

Bethune’s The Battle of Manassas (1866), in the battle piece tradition, describes the Battles of Bull Run fought at Manassas, Virginia on July 21, 1861, and on August 29 and 30, 1862. The piece opens with “The Southern army leaving home to the tune of The Girl I Left Behind Me”. Rolling drums are imitated in the bass and the melody is played in the high treble as if by a fife. The tune changes to “Dixie” with the written indication that this change describes the “Northern army leaving Washington”. The lyrically brooding Adagio section labeled “The Eve of Battle” creates an eerie, anticipatory atmosphere and in the distance is heard “the noise of arms and accoutrements”. “Gen. Beauregard’s trumpets” break through the air, and then cannon fire is imitated by massive (as many notes as possible with the left or both hands) bass tone clusters. “The Marseillaise” and “Star-Spangled Banner” appear. And then in another imaginative recreation the “reinforcements … under Gen. Kirby Smith” arrive on a train, imitated by Bethune making a chugging vocal sound and whistling a high C for the train’s whistle, playing “The Marseillaise” again on the instrument. “The Retreat” is a furious coda played as fast as possible, ending in a series of speedy dominant-tonic cadences in various keys.

John William Boone (1864-1927) was another blind African-American pianist-composer. He gave his debut recital in Columbus, Missouri in 1878, and toured for the next 48 years as “Blind Boone,” but was never quite as successful as Tom Bethune. Several of Boone’s compositions, such as Melodies des negres, “Southern Rag Medley Nos. 1 and 2,” are concert pieces based on African-American themes; Boone’s later repertoire consisted mostly of ragtime numbers. Other noted African-American piano virtuosi, such as Samuel Jamieson (1855-1930) who graduated from the Boston Conservatory in 1876, were also beginning to become more visible.

Several composers in the 1860s followed in the Gottschalk wake, so to speak, with bravura, and very popular, piano works: George Frederick Bristow contributed his Souvenir de Mount Vernon: grande valse brillante, Op. 29 (1861); Homer Newton Bartlett made his debut with his Grande polka de concert, Op. 1 (1867); Richard Hoffman created Dixiana: Caprice (1861); George William Warren‘s The Andes: Marche di Bravura (Homage to Church’s Picture ‘The Heart of the Andes’) (1863) was written as a reaction to a British man who criticized American music at an art gallery reception (Gottschalk immediately ran to the piano and improvised on Root’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” which brought down the house); and autodidact Dudley Buck, Jr.‘s Introduction and Rondo Brilliant, Op. 7 (1865) is playful and expansive, his piano music generally exhibiting a sense of humor that counterbalanced his many fine religious works. Buck’s orchestral work Festival Overture on the American National Air, the Star-Spangled Banner is arguably the most energetic and imaginative setting of the official anthem.

A more sentimental but still tasteful work is Ellsworth C. Phelps’ Annie & I (1864), which is a lyrical piece steeped in music hall chromaticism. The tensions of the times—this was during the Civil War—seem to be not at all reflected in these pieces, except perhaps as they may have served as a temporary diversion or escape. This is not true of course of the many in memoriam works that followed the assassination of President Lincoln, one of the best of which is a Funeral March in Memory of President Lincoln, Op. 9 (1865) by John Knowles Paine, one of the most accomplished American composers of the time, historically grouped with the likes of George Chadwick and Horatio Parker, the so-called Boston classicists. The restrained, somber march theme is played con tenerezza (with tenderness) over a pianistic imitation of muffled drums.

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