|| "Beautiful Dreamer" (1864) ||
Composed late in his life and published posthumously, Stephen Foster’s "Beautiful Dreamer" (1864) is one of the composer’s most memorable ballads. It was written at least six months before Foster’s death, when he was destitute and in poor heath, and survived by selling songs (at extremely cheap rates) that were written in haste. While prolific in number, these last songs, for the most part, were less inspired than his earlier efforts, such as "Oh! Susanna", which had launched his career as a songwriter.
For his songs composed after 1860, Foster turned his creative energy to the parlor ballad, a type of song noted for its sentimental or narrative text, frequently at a slow tempo. The subjects of Foster’s ballads were relatively free from minstrel-song influences and centered on topics devoid of southern themes, such as mother, love, and home. With its lilting triplet rhythm, "Beautiful Dreamer" exemplifies Foster’s final sentiments and has become one of America’s most beloved serenades.
|| About Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864) ||
Regarded as one of America’s principal and most influential songwriters, it is fitting that Stephen Foster shares his birthday with that of the nation. Born on July 4, 1826, in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, Foster revealed an early interest in music but received little formal training. Primarily self-taught, Foster displayed an affinity for “Ethiopian” and minstrel songs (he performed in minstrel shows as a boy), yet he also incorporated characteristics of Irish melodies, German songs, and Italian operas in his compositions. He was eighteen when "Open Thy Lattice, Love" (1844), set to a poem by George P. Morris, was published; however, the title page of his first publication erroneously credited the composer as "L.C. Foster." Subsequently, Foster served as both composer and lyricist to his songs, which numbered over two hundred.
Some of Foster’s earliest songs were modeled on those he heard performed in minstrel shows. His first big hit, "Oh! Susanna" (1847), which launched Foster’s career as a songwriter, became a favorite with minstrel troupes. The song also became associated with the California Gold Rush of 1849, as the forty-niners accepted a parodied version as the unofficial anthem. In 1850, Foster composed "De Camptown Races", which was introduced by the Christy Minstrels (founded by Edwin P. Christy), the most famous minstrel troupe of the day. Like "Susanna", "De Camptown Races" was also used by the forty-niners en route to California in a parody entitled Sacramento. On July 22, 1850, Foster married Jane Denny McDowell; their daughter Marion was born nearly one year later. Foster’s romantic ballad, "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" (1854), is perhaps the most famous of the songs he composed for his bride.
In 1851, Foster sent Christy a sentimental song, "Old Folks at Home", more commonly known as "Swanee River". By November 1854, the song had sold over 130,000 copies, making it one of Foster’s most popular and successful compositions. The song’s position in history was solidified when it became the official state song of Florida in 1935. Another of Foster’s melodies, "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), was also adopted as an official state anthem. Foster’s only melody to be inspired by his actual visit to the state, it became Kentucky’s state song in 1928.
Even though by 1853 Foster had an exclusive contract with music publisher Firth, Pond, and Company, his financial situation became unstable, due in part to the lack of copyright protection on his songs. His personal life also suffered, and after numerous conflicts with his wife, the couple separated in 1854. Burdened with the loss of his parents the following year, as well as with his declining health and his alcoholism, the quality of Foster’s creative output greatly diminished. In the 1860s, he focused on sentimental ballads rather than minstrel songs, and of the many songs penned during his last years, only "Beautiful Dreamer" (1864) has achieved the status of his earlier works. Although penniless when he died on January 10, 1864, Foster bestowed on America a rich legacy of memorable songs.