Friday 20 October 2017

Classic talk: Thomas Jefferson - the musical president

Accomplished: Thomas Jefferson played the violin from a young age
Accomplished: Thomas Jefferson played the violin from a young age

George Hamilton

May you live in interesting times, is reputed to be an old Chinese curse. Times have most certainly been interesting since the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States on January 20.

Prior to World War II, all the way back to the start of the second term of the first incumbent, George Washington, this was the day American Presidents were sworn in.

And so it was that on Wednesday March 4, 1801, the US Marine Band played at the ceremony for the first time, and they've been doing so ever since.

That day, Thomas Jefferson moved into the White House. He may not have been behind the inclusion of the band in the ceremony - his predecessor John Adams had them perform at a New Year's Day reception in the White House just a couple of months before - but it was Jefferson who dubbed them "The President's Own".

Jefferson loved music - "the favourite passion of my soul", he called it - and he did everything he could to promote it.

He played the violin from a young age - he'd practise for up to three hours a day - and he was also an accomplished cellist.

Music was at the very centre of his life. When he was courting Martha Skelton, a widow who would become his wife, he was one of three men with his eye on her.

But he was the only musician among them. Martha and Thomas would spend their evenings together by her harpsichord. She played and he accompanied her on his violin.

This appears to have been what sealed the deal. The two love rivals couldn't compete, and lost interest. On their engagement, Thomas bought Martha a piano.

Sadly, Martha died long before Thomas achieved the highest office. The story is told of how he wanted to commemorate his late wife by commissioning a piece by Mozart in her honour. A meeting was arranged, but nothing came of it.

Jefferson didn't apparently like Mozart the man, finding him somewhat uncouth. That didn't stop him enjoying the music and appreciating the Austrian's genius.

The president's taste took in all sorts of styles. Haydn was a particular favourite, but he also enjoyed French and Italian composers.

And despite his view that his own country lagged way behind - in a state of "deplorable barbarism", as he saw it - he still boasted a sizeable collection of American tunes.

The standard of Jefferson's musicianship can be gauged by the scores he collected - everything from concertos to sonatas, including compositions by Vivaldi, Handel, and Boccherini. This wouldn't be music for the occasional dabbler. He was clearly committed to his art.

Jefferson also tried his hand at composition himself, and his musical connections stretch all the way to the American national anthem.

A song heard at one of his receptions celebrated the sight of the American flag still flying over Baltimore harbour after a night of British bombardment.

The US Congress would eventually declare 'The Star-Spangled Banner' the national anthem on March 3, 1931 - just a day short of the 130th anniversary of the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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