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

Vocal Music for Concert Performance

Not all American songs of 1870-85 were popular songs. There were also composers who wrote songs for concert performance, songs written in emulation of the great European song composers or of the humbler parlor ballads of which Arthur Sullivan's "The Lost Chord" and "Tosti's Farewell" are the best-known examples from the period. American composers in this tradition include John Knowles Paine, Homer N. Bartlett (1845-1911), A. H. Pease (1838-1882), Clara Kathleen Rogers (1844-1931), and Samuel P. Warren (1841-1915).

"Love's Good Morrow"
Composer: A. H. Pease
Published: 1874
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

The American tradition of secular social choral singing goes back at least to Lowell Mason's Boston Glee Book of 1838. The 1870s and 1880s saw a flourishing of this form of music; since it was often sung by college singing societies, works appeared for mixed chorus, male chorus, and female chorus. Both accompanied and unaccompanied choruses were published. A fair amount of the male unaccompanied literature is in German, reflecting the Männerchor tradition brought over from the old country.

"I Wore Your Roses Yesterday"
Composer: J. K. Paine
Published: 1879
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

Both the solo-song tradition and the choral tradition relied heavily on the setting of pre-existing texts (in contrast to the popular-song tradition, in which composer and lyricist worked together). The English-language poet whose work appears most often in this online collection is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (there is also a mourning song on the death of Longfellow); he is followed by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Thomas Moore. The pre-nineteenth-century poet whose work appears most is William Shakespeare. Other English-language poets, major and minor, who were set with at least moderate frequency include Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, William Cullen Bryant, Robert Burns (who is responsible for a fair number of the "Scots" songs mentioned in "Ethnic Groups and Popular Songs"), Lord Byron, Felicia Hemans (writer of "The Landing of the Pilgrims"), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Hood, Charles Kingsley, Lucy Larcom, James Russell Lowell, Adelaide Proctor (whose "A Lost Chord" is the basis of Arthur Sullivan's "The Lost Chord"), James Whitcomb Riley, Christina Rossetti, Sir Walter Scott, Percy Bysshe Shelley (the spelling of whose name gives the engravers endless trouble), William Wetmore Story, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Celia Thaxter (whose guest house on the Isles of Shoals sheltered American composers including Kate Vannah ["L. K. Vannah" in this collection] and John Knowles Paine), and John Greenleaf Whittier. Other poets one now thinks of as major nineteenth-century figures appear much less frequently. It is not surprising that nothing by Emily Dickinson appears in this collection: only seven of her poems were published before her death in 1886. Nor is it surprising how little Walt Whitman is here: composers of the period liked verse that scanned and rhymed. But it is more surprising that so little of Edgar Allen Poe appears, and that there is almost nothing of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Major English names that make only rare appearances are Matthew Arnold, William Blake, John Dryden, Robert Herrick, John Milton, Henry Vaughan, and William Wordsworth.

"The Year's At The Spring"
Composer: Clara Kathleen Rogers
Published: 1882
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

American composers had been writing operas at least since William Henry Fry's Leonora of 1845. If one accepts operas based on English models, the history goes back at least to John Bray's The Indian Princess of 1808. Of the many American operas written from 1870 to1885, none holds the stage today; the only one to maintain a modest place in operatic history books is George Frederick Bristow's Rip Van Winkle, first performed in 1855 and revised for publication in full vocal score in 1882. Excerpts from Rip Van Winkle appear in this collection along with excerpts from numerous other American operas. Sometimes there is only a single number; sometimes there seems to be a complete vocal score, as in the case of George W. Tryon Jr.'s Amy Cassonet. Not every opera that appears here was actually performed. The publication of extensive excerpts from Otho Visconti by Frederick Grant Gleason (1848-1903), for example, represents a triumph of hope over circumstances: the opera was not performed until 1907. For those unwilling to face an entire evening of opera, Frederick W. Root's The Extract of Opera supplies three full acts of operatic cliché in fifteen minutes.

"Tears"
Composer: Homer N. Bartlett
Published: 1878
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

Note that it was traditional at this time to refer to operetta as "operas" on printed editions of their music. H.M.S. Pinafore, for example, is regularly referred to on title-pages as "a New and Original Nautical Opera.." This essay tries to differentiate operas from operettas as much as possible.

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