The Fifth Element #61

The phrase "the mystic chords of memory" comes from Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. Of course, larger issues than those addressed in this column occupied most peoples' minds just then. But it is nonetheless worthwhile for us to spend a moment or two thinking about how differently people experienced music in 1861, compared to how things are today.

810fifth.rondstadt.jpgIn America in 1861, there was virtually no recorded music. If it wasn't live, you couldn't hear it. And once you heard a piece of music, you would never hear that exact same performance ever again. In 1861, music lived on in peoples' memories, not on their shelves. In 1861, a workable player piano had not yet been developed. That would have to wait for what were in retrospect viewed as the "Gay Nineties." (After the horrors of World War I, almost anything would have seemed carefree in comparison.)

In any event, in 1861, the piano was nowhere near as popular in the US as it would become after the Civil War. People who could afford an instrument in their parlors usually had a reed organ such as a harmonium or melodeon, or, rarely, a harp. Indeed, the first mechanical "player" instruments for the home were reed organs. But those would come later.

There were, of course, music boxes, whose basic pins-on-a-barrel technology had been thought up in ninth-century Persia. Music boxes emerged as practical devices in Europe between 1796 and 1815. In 1861, however, music boxes, like pocket watches, were still only for people with significant disposable income. Furthermore, in 1861, a music box could play only one tune. Interchangeable cylinders or discs that allowed a music box to play a variety of tunes had yet to be invented. Though when music boxes with interchangeable discs were invented, they inspired Berliner's disc phonograph, just as music boxes with interchangeable cylinders inspired Edison's talking machine.

But in 1861, people heard music in churches, in their homes, or in the homes of friends or relatives, sometimes from buskers in streets or in train stations, sometimes in concert halls or theaters, and sometimes even in public settings such as beer gardens. Indeed, in 1850, Castle Gardens, in Manhattan's Battery Park, was the site of a recital by legendary Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, who was promoted by none other than P.T. Barnum.

What a pity it is that no recordings exist of Lind's voice! Don't be misled by the Barnum connection—it netted her $250,000, a fantastic sum for the time, and most of which she gave to charities. Jenny Lind was not bunkum. The middle range of her voice was thought to be of unprecedented pitch security and purity of tone (footnote 1). Her dynamics at the quiet end of the spectrum, where she could "hover" on a pianissimo, remain the stuff of legend even today.

Lind mightily impressed everyone from Giuseppe Verdi (he heard her sing Bellini's La Sonnambula and Norma, and she created the role of Amalia in Verdi's I Masnadieri) to Fréderic Chopin (who once had her sing until 1am) to Hans Christian Andersen (she inspired three of his stories) to Felix Mendelssohn, who reportedly asked her to elope to America with him (he was married at the time). Quite a woman.

In a typical act of generosity, Lind gave a classmate who had settled in Chicago $5000 with which to buy a camera for his studio. (Cutting-edge technology has never been cheap.) That camera was used to take one of the earliest daguerreotypes of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln did not have a great singing voice. But like most people back then, he did sing—it was the easiest way to hear music. In typically self-deprecating fashion, Lincoln once quipped, "I know only two tunes, one is 'Old Hundred,' and the other isn't." ("Old Hundredth" is most commonly known today as "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow." Ralph Vaughan Williams whipped up an arrangement of it in 1953, for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.)

Lincoln's musical tastes were eclectic, ranging from minstrel shows (which he loved), to sentimental ballads, to Scottish folksongs, to the proto-jazz American piano music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, to opera. (Flotow's Martha was presented as part of Lincoln's 1865 Inaugural festivities; the month before he was assassinated, Lincoln attended a performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute.) Some sources cite "The Blue-Tail Fly" (or "Jimmy [or Gimme] Crack Corn") as Lincoln's favorite song—he even played it on his harmonica. Other sources claim that it was, instead, "Listen to the Mocking Bird." But most sources say that Lincoln's favorite song was "Dixie."

Go figure. Next time around, instead of Presidential debates, let's have harmonica competitions.

Footnote 1: Although Lind's range was reported to extend to a high G, I believe that would have been at an older, lower tuning, not today's concert pitch of A=440Hz (adopted in 1939). Still, F-sharp or F is nothing to sneeze at.—John Marks