Review By Ronald E. Grames ,Fanfare,September 2011
Most readers will never have heard of these composers. In fact, I rather suspect that most collectors attracted to this release, The 18th-Century American Overture, will be so more out of historical curiosity than out of any prior knowledge of the music itself. Benjamin Carr (1768–1831) and James Hewitt (1770–1827) were both English-born and educated. Carr, who studied organ with Charles Wesley and composition with Samuel Arnold, the first great cataloger and editor of Handel’s music, was a prolific publisher, a driving force in the development of a music establishment in Philadelphia, and one of the founders of the Musical Fund Society. Hewitt, who made the questionable claim that he had played violin in London under the direction of Haydn, was similarly engaged
I mention the credentials of the three composers, as one would otherwise never attribute these works to musicians of any serious standing. Of course, when listening to the initial track, the Hewitt Medley Overture, one may well assume that a disc of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 had been substituted. But wait a bit, for soon after follow quotes of reels, marches, and patriotic songs like Yankee Doodle. In many of these, transitions are minimal, and there is little or no attempt to create a coherent flow. Tunes are occasionally cut off in mid-phrase to make way for the next, and the sublime and the trivial reside incongruously together. These then are pops concert entertainments of their day, compendiums of common tunes that would be recognized by the audience, packaged occasionally with the latest works from Europe. (The Mozart piano concerto premiered but 13 years before its appropriation here.) Some, like Carr’s Federal Overture, have a political purpose, with La Marseillaise running roughshod over some English tunes, followed by Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be? and Philip Phile’s Presidential March, now better known as The Itsy-Bitsy Spider. The intent would not have been lost on his audience in 1794. Others by Reinagle, the pragmatic man of the theater, lack pretensions musical or political, and are full of lively dance tunes.
Each of them, whatever the musical merit, gives insight into the culture of the new republic. These seven overtures are all that remain of many such works produced in America in the last two decades of the 18th century, and these have only survived in published piano reductions, or string parts without wind parts or score. The reconstructions were done by musicologist Bertil van Boer, prof