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Collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885

Music for Piano and Other Instruments

There is more music for piano than any other kind of music in this online collection. A fair amount of it is by American composers who hoped that their works would join the company of piano pieces played in concert: brothers of the Schumann genre pieces, the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, the Chopin nocturnes, the Brahms intermezzi. Louis Moreau Gottschalk(1829-1869), the first American composer to enter this company, died just before the period presented here; his music appears here in posthumous publications. There are also a few pieces written as memorials to Gottschalk. Charles Kunkel (1840-1923), who had played piano duets with Gottschalk, wrote music that continued the Gottschalk tradition of flamboyance (his most successful piece, "Alpine Storm," was published in 1888, too late for this collection); other composers tended to opt rather for Mendelssohnian/Brahmsian restraint.

"Silvery Waves, Piano I [and] Piano II"
Composer: A. P. Wyman
Published: 1872
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

American composers for the piano in this period include several still well known to music scholars: pioneer William Mason (1829-1908), Boston classicists John Knowles Paine (1834-1906) and the younger Arthur Foote (1853-1937) (who appears in this online collection as an editor of European piano music), immigrants Ernest Perabo (1845-1920) and Julius Eichberg (1824-93), a single work of the young Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), and, foreshadowing a later generation of composers, music of the child prodigy Henry Hadley (1871-1937), who would develop into one of the significant American composers of the early twentieth century. There are other composers, obscure even by the standards of American music in the 1870s-80s: Robert Goldbeck (1839-1908), Frederick Brandeis, Homer N. Bartlett (1846-1920), Charles Dennée (1863-1946), Auguste Mignon, S. B. (doubtless "Sebastian Bach") Mills. All wrote pieces that can be programmed in concert without apology.

"Melnotte's Banjo"
Composer: Claude Melnotte
Published: 1874
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

Existing alongside these works is a far larger number of pieces aimed frankly at the parlor piano and the amateur pianist. There are innumerable sets of "brilliant variations" on popular tunes, brilliant but not unduly difficult, delivering a splashy effect with a minimum of practice; there are marches; there are dances: waltzes, polkas, galops, schottisches, mazurkas, and those dance-suites the quadrille and the lancers, the last two often made up of popular tunes of the day. Some of these are designed for dancing (a moderate number contain instructions for dancing) but many are meant purely for the player's diversion. Like the concert pieces, the parlor pieces have their principal composers, including Henry Maylath (1827-1883), Charles D. Blake, and the prolific E. Mack, whose name appears on more pieces of music in this online collection than does any other.

"Evening Voluntary"
Composer: Alex. M. Goldsborough
Published: 1871
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

It was after the Civil War that music publishers discovered the wide market for piano pieces written specifically for children. Music of this material is carefully fingered (in the "American manner," with x for thumb and fingers numbered 1-2-3-4, rather than the now better-known method in which the thumb is thought of as finger number one). Music for children included dances, genre pieces, popular songs in simple arrangements, and European popular tunes arranged for small fingers (and short attention-spans; many pieces are severely abridged). Often the pieces were grouped into sets with titles such as "Eight Little Scamps" or "The Telephone." Each piece was sold individually, but the publishers hoped that if one of the pieces pleased the young players they would want to buy them all. Both Henry Maylath and E. Mack wrote and arranged prolifically for the children's piano market; there were also composers such as Charles Kinkel (different from the Charles Kunkel mentioned above), who made such music their specialty.

"100 Pieces of Exercise"
Composer: Jos. von Blumenthal
Published: 1871
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

This collection contains a great deal of music for piano four-hands, a fair amount for piano six-hands, and an occasional piece for piano one-hand. Though little of the piano music is experimental, there is at least one piece for white notes only and several in 5/4 time. There are some unclassifiable pieces: John Horn's "Reflections of the Past," an autobiographical piano piece recounting a German »migr»'s twenty-five years in America, and Ludwig W. Harmsen's "The Martyr,"a tone-poem for piano on the life and death of President Garfield that breaks out towards the middle in a page of choral prayer. And, finally, for those wanting to learn to play these pieces or to play them better, there are many piano methods.

Music for organ in this collection consists partly of works for pipe organ, most of it in the mold of European organ composition, and partly of music for the reed organ ("harmonium," "Salvation Army organ"), which is often indistinguishable from the easier grades of music for the parlor piano. Much music for guitar was published during this era, including music arranged by the pioneering African-American guitarist Justin Holland (1819-87). The 1880s also saw the first considerable publication of music for banjo, much of it published by the composer-arranger-performer-entrepreneur S. S. Stewart (1855-1898).

Most of the instrumental duets (aside from piano four-hand pieces) are for violin and piano or cornet and piano. The violin-and-piano pieces are almost all arrangements, many by the old pro Septimus Winner. Cornet solos tend to be showpieces with a chicken-and-egg relationship to identical pieces for cornet and band (not all of them in this collection). In the 1880s a very few American pieces in the concert tradition for solo instrument and piano were published: a successful example is William Mason's Serenata for Pianoforte and Violoncello, op. 39. The market would not sustain the publication of chamber music in the concert tradition for larger ensembles: the George Whitefield Chadwick first and second string quartets, written in this period by a composer with a good relationship with publishers, remained unpublished. Of the three published American works for string quartet in this collection, one is a set of easy pieces in first position and another is arranged for piano solo. There is also a quartet for violin alone, actually a piece for unaccompanied solo violin multiple stopping.