By DENISE GALLO
Before Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library of 6,487 volumes to the government in 1815 to "recommence" the function of the Congressional Library, the holdings of which had been burned by British forces during their occupation of Washington the previous year, the Library's music collections consisted of only a small number of musical compositions. The music-related works included in Jefferson's collection—to which the Library's Music Division traces its origins—consisted of 13 books about music literature, pedagogy and theory. Among these titles is an annotated copy of Francesco Geminiani's "The Art of Playing on the Violin" (1751).
Jefferson's annotation came from a book by Charles Burney, one of Geminiani's critics. A composer and musician of modest renown, Burney is best known as a commentator on the contemporary European musical scene. After traveling through Europe and listening to myriad performers and national styles, he recorded his findings in a journal that was eventually published in several works for which he is best remembered today: "The Present State of Music in France and Italy, or the Journal of a Tour Through Those Countries, Undertaken to Collect Materials for a General History of Music" (1771) and "The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Provinces, or the Journal of a Tour Through These Countries, Undertaken to Collect Materials for a General History of Music" (1773).
In his 1771 publication, Burney engaged in a discussion of organs and their construction, maintaining that those built in England far surpassed the ones he had heard on the Continent. One effect, he noted, was the "swell," a device producing a gradual crescendo of sound that was, he wrote, "still utterly unknown" on organs in Italy. To this comment, Burney added the following footnote:
"It is the same with the Beat upon the unison, octave, or any consonant sound to a note on the violin, which so well supplies the place of the old close-shake; for this beautiful effect, if not wholly unknown, is at least neglected by all the violin performers that I heard on the continent, though so commonly and successfully practised [sic] in England by those of the Giardini school."
Less interested in Burney's discussion of English organs than he was in his comment on violin technique, Jefferson copied Burney's footnote almost verbatim in his personal copy of Geminiani's work: "the Beat upon the unison, octave, or any consonant sound to a note on the violin, which so well supplies the place of the old Close-Shake, if not wholly unknown, is at least neglected by all of the violin players I heard on the continent tho'so commonly and successfully practised in England by those of the Giardini school. Burney's journ. Nov. 16, 1770."
Although taking the quotation out of its original context—a commentary on organs—Jefferson nonetheless connected Burney's ideas about the effect of the swell's crescendo with Geminiani's instructions for producing a "close shake (left-hand vibrato)." Geminiani counseled that the close shake was so effective that "it should be made use of as often as possible." Although Burney concurred that it produced a "beautiful effect," he suggested that the ornament was out of fashion by terming it "old." Furthermore, he skirted any mention of Geminiani's influence in the area of violin playing, rather citing the younger Felice Giardini, whom Burney referred to as the "greatest performer in Europe."
It seems unlikely that Jefferson was taking sides in an aesthetic debate simply because he copied the words of one of Geminiani's detractors into his copy of the treatise. Rather it speaks eloquently of how well read Jefferson was about musical matters, and how, even on a point as refined as small melodic embellishment, he was able to synthesize two disparate commentaries in order to contemplate how better to perform on his favorite instrument.
Jefferson was an accomplished violinist and music aficionado who 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 so that he could practice when he was away. At home, he could play his other instruments as well as consult his personal copies of contemporary musical treatises such as Geminiani's.
Jefferson is known to have amassed an extensive collection of published music, primarily for violin. This collection was bequeathed to his heirs, and was subsequently acquired by the University of Virginia. But his annotated copy of Geminiani's seminal treatise remains a treasure of the Library of Congress.
Denise Gallo is acting assistant head of Reader Services in the Library's Music Division.