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ClassicsOnline Home » FOSTER: Foster for Brass
Stephen Foster (1826–1864)
Nineteenth Century Brass Band Music based on the Songs of Stephen Foster
Race relations! Industrialization! Pop culture! Accelerating pace of change! While these could be topics shouted from the nightly news, they were issues initially confronted by American society during the life of the country’s first great song-writer, Stephen Collins Foster. In Foster’s America the issue of slavery was
slowly wrenching the nation toward Civil War and the slow pace of agrarian life was giving way to the Industrial Revolution and an exodus from countryside to cities. The leisure time and disposable income of the growing middle class created the first stirrings of a “music industry” and this in turn made it possible for a
young man such as Stephen Foster to consider a previously unimaginable career, that of professionalsong-writer.
Though Foster can be considered the father of American popular music, his life was rather modest by the frenzied standards of today’s pop stars. Born on the
United States’ fiftieth birthday, 4 July 1826, he spent the greater part of his life in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, well away from the cultural and entertainment centres on the East coast, moving to New York only when his career was already in decline. Known for celebrating the Deep South, he travelled there only
once, and briefly, during his life.
From an early age music was one of the few constants in Foster’s life. His entrepreneurial father made risky ventures in both politics and business, and though middle class his large and musically inclined family was in recurring financial distress. They lost their beloved home the “White Cottage” in Foster’s
infancy and rarely had a settled home life after that time. A childhood spent moving from place to place conferred upon Foster a life-long sense of displacement
and nostalgia, which would resonate with a nation of the uprooted immigrants and settlers pining for a peaceful home and Arcadian past even as they bustled toward an
urban and industrial future.
Foster’s education was as uneven as his home life. Largely self-taught in music, he received some guidance from family members and from Henry Kleber, one of the many fine German immigrant musicians who graced American cities during the nineteenth century. His first known composition was written when he was fourteen. His first published song Open Thy Lattice Love dates from his eighteenth year and is typical of the period’s genteel parlour ballads appropriate for the young ladies and gentlemen of the bourgeoisie. His first success as a song-writer, however, came with a much earthier style of music, the ‘Ethiopian’ or ‘Plantation’ songs associated with minstrel shows. The issue of slavery had been left unresolved with the writing of the United States Constitution, and while abolished in the industrial Northern states, it was pervasive in the agricultural South. Minstrel shows, in which white performers darkened their faces with burnt cork and
both mocked and sentimentalised the enslaved African-American population, were a subconscious attempt on a national scale to expiate collective social guilt by
reducing the humanity of slavery’s victims. The minstrel performers also began a long tradition of whites borrowing from indigenous black music, which continued through jazz and rock-and-roll to the “whiterappers” of today.
While working as a bookkeeper in 1847 at his brother’s shipping business in Cincinnati, Foster wrote his first great success, the Ethiopian song Oh! Susanna.
Sold to the publisher W.C. Peters for a mere $100, the song soon became a national craze and made Peters a small fortune. Though Foster profited little monetarily
from the song it gave him the confidence to return to Pittsburgh and begin his career as America’s first full time song-writer. More minstrel hits soon followed,
including the rambunctious Camptown Races. The nostalgic Old Folks At Home or Swanee River, launched a long tradition of longing-for-the-South songs, from Irving Berlin’s When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’, to Sweet Home Alabama made famous by the country-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Though Foster’s traditional songs initially failed to achieve the success of his minstrel numbers, he was gradually able to reconcile the two threads of his work, wonderfully described by his biographer Ken Emerson as ‘possumfat and flowerets’, into a single cohesive style.
The 1850s were productive for Foster and he achieved fame and relative financial success. In 1850 he married Jane (Jennie) McDowell and their only child, daughter Marion, was born in 1851. Foster, the former accountant, set up an innovative and profitable arrangement with the New York publishing house of Firth, Pond & Co., which paid a royalty for each copy of his songs sold rather than the single purchase fee standard at that time. A similar set-up made Irving Berlin a rich man decades later and might be one of the reasons Berlin kept a portrait of Foster on his officewall.
Foster composed prolifically making use of a wide variety of styles and subjects, including ballads and genre and comic songs. Though part of the confused political middle ground regarding the abolition of slavery (he composed campaign songs for the similarly indecisive President James Buchanan whose brother was married to Foster’s sister), he largely jettisoned condescending dialect from his plantation songs, which achieved a greater gentleness and humanity. Though the sentiments of many of these songs are questionable by today’s standards, the great black abolitionist firebrand Frederick Douglas acknowledged at the time that Foster’s plantation songs ‘…awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root andflourish’.
In 1860 Foster moved with his family to New York City, but in a nation on the verge of a long and bloody Civil War tastes were changing and Foster’s popularity
was on the wane. Sales declined and he was often in debt both to his family and to his publisher for advances. The relationship between the dreamy, poetic Foster and his pragmatic wife had always been difficult and Jennie and Marion soon went back to Pennsylvania for good. Everything, from his career to his personal life to his country itself, was coming apart. Alcoholism and depression, possibly present in Foster’s life before this time, took hold and the remainder of his life was spent
in increasing poverty and squalor, though he still produced a number of songs, both on his own and in collaboration with a young friend, George Cooper. Late Foster compositions include the Civil War songs We Are Coming Father Abraam, When This Cruel War Is Over and the comic song My Wife Is A Most KnowingWoman.
In January 1864, Stephen Foster fell in his rented room and gashed his throat. His weakened constitution prevented a recovery, and he died at New York’s
Bellevue Hospital at the age of 38. Though out of fashion at his death, Foster’s work was never forgotten. His works have achieved the status of folk-song, and
many listeners are surprised to find that his songs have an actual composer at all, for it is hard to imagine a timethat they were not part of America’s music.
In addition to touring troupes and performances on parlor pianos, much of Foster’s music circulated during his lifetime in versions for brass bands. Adolphe Sax,
best known today as the inventor of the saxophone, had perfected “saxhorns” in the 1840s, a matched family of conical bore brasses using the recently developed valve system, and their powerful yet sweet sound quickly came to dominate public music throughout mid-19thcentury America. As an adventure in musical time
travel the sounds that listeners in Foster’s time would have heard are duplicated on this recording by a quintet of authentic period instruments. Their unique sound is strikingly different from that of modern brasses. Additionally, at a time when the distinctions between classical and popular music were less marked than
today, their performers would have blended elements of classical, popular and folk traditions. Though Foster wrote few instrumental pieces himself, his sturdy
melodies were regularly adapted as marches, quick steps and dance pieces by other composers, a typicalpractice of the time.
Nineteenth-century American musicians were usually involved in many aspects of music and two names appear on this recording in multiple rôles. D.C. Hall (1822–1890) was a noted keyed bugle soloist and bandleader in New England. His Bronze Bob Tail Horse Quick Step is based on two Foster songs, Camptown Races and Oh! Boys Carry Me ’Long. Its title pokes fun at Auber’s Le Cheval de bronze, then a brass-band staple. The E flat contrabass saxhorn used on this recording was built by Hall & Quinby, an instrument manufactory he established in Boston during the 1860s. The dynamic musical entrepreneur John F. Stratton (1832–1912) published the Stratton Military Band Journal from which Why, No One To Love is included here and established a thriving business which made instruments for both sides during the Civil War, including the E flat soprano saxhorn heard on thisrecording.
American military bands in the mid-nineteenth century usually depended on arrangements crafted by their leaders. John P. King was stationed in Port Royal, South Carolina as leader of the 6th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry band, under the command of Colonel Lorenzo Meeker. King’s bittersweet Col. Meeker’s Quick Step uses two poignant melodies, Loving Hearts At Home by John Rodgers Thomas and Why Have My Loved Ones Gone? by Foster to evoke the loneliness of soldiers far from home. Also stationed in Port Royal was the 4th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry band, formerly the Manchester Cornet Band. From their band books comes George Hart’s Quick Step by the Spanish-born conductor and composer Claudio Grafulla (1810–1880). Grafulla is also represented here by the Dolly Day Quick Step, based on
Foster’s minstrel tune Dolly Day and his parlour ballad Molly Do You Love Me?. From the Southern, or Confederate, side of the Civil War, settings of Foster’s companion-piece songs Lulu Is Gone and Where Has Lula Gone? come from the manuscript books of the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band which originated in the highly musical Moravian community of Salem, N.C.
The tremendous demand for live music in this era before recorded media led publishers regularly to issue collections and “journals” for brass bands. Foster’s Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming, originally written in four a cappella voice parts, is heard in contrasting versions, a ballad version featuring solo alto
saxhorn, and a quick step version from Squire’s Cornet Band Olio published in Cincinnati by the English émigré Alfred Squire. The Brass Band Journal issued in
1855 by Foster’s publishers Firth, Pond & Co. provides the largest single source for the music on this recording. The identity of its writer, G.W.E. Friedrich, remains a mystery, though it may be a pseudonym for the American composer George F. Root who at that time worked through Foster’s publisher. The arrangements are elegant and sophisticated and show the influence of Italian opera in the United States. The March. My Old Kentucky Home starts out sounding like one of the lost brass band marches by Verdi, then is transformedsurprisingly into Foster’s familiar tune.
Septimus Winner (1827–1902) is best remembered today as the composer of Listen to the Mocking Bird, based in part on a song by a young black employee at
his music store. His Willie Schottische is based on Foster’s song Willie We Have Missed You. William Ratel, composer of the Camptown Quick Step and James Bellak, whose Hard Times Waltz is based on Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More are both survived by numerous piano compositions. Edward White, whose California Quick Step features Foster’s Ethiopian tune Uncle Ned, was noted for composing hymns and religious music.
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FOSTER: Foster for Brass