Music held a notable place within Thomas Jefferson’s cultured and humanistic life—a point reinforced by his insistence on having music instruction at his newly founded University of Virginia. This shows the importance Jefferson placed on music in the life of the mind, just as his involvement with music throughout his life enhances his image as an ornament to American culture.
One of our greatest founding statesmen, Thomas Jefferson was just as remarkable for the breadth of his interests outside of politics. This American “Renaissance man” (and he had arguably a greater claim to this title than some of those of the Renaissance) mastered and enjoyed—to give only a partial list—architecture, astronomy, archeology, agriculture, horticulture, mechanics, the law, and classical and modern languages. And music. Interestingly, while Jefferson did not say a great deal about music, the scattered statements that he did make suggest that it held great importance in his life. He described it as “this favorite passion of my soul” and a “delightful recreation through life”; he urged his daughters, “Do not neglect your music. It will be a companion which will sweeten many hours of life to you.” To go further, music was for him “an enjoyment the deprivation of which cannot be calculated.” Music also connected in a significant way with his love for mechanics and invention.
At the age of 20, Jefferson wrote to his friend and classmate John Page of his intention to make a grand tour of Europe and, while, in Italy, “buy me a good fiddle.” We don’t know when Jefferson took up the violin, but it must have been in childhood since by the age of fourteen he was copying favorite tunes into music books, indicating that he had acquired some musical proficiency. At a certain point after graduating from the College of William and Mary and while studying law, he took lessons from Francis Alberti, an Italian émigré living in Williamsburg. Soon after we find him participating in musical evenings at the palace of Francis Fauquier, the royal governor of Virginia. Cultivated music in the colonies was in its infancy, yet Jefferson was able to gather around him a harpsichordist, Robert Carter, and a fellow violinist, John Tyler, who later became governor of the state. These musical soirees also included much “rational and philosophical conversation” and libations of fine wine.
One of the motifs of Jefferson’s musical life, which would in time prove distinctively American, is a blending of the cultivated (classical, therefore European) and the popular/vernacular/rustic. Jefferson, who could and did play classical sonatas on his violin, was just as ready to let fly one of the many country fiddle tunes and dances, with a distinct Scotch-Irish twang, that were popular in the backwoods of Virginia. Jefferson’s companion in this type of music was often Patrick Henry, the future statesman and a fellow fiddler. Notably, however, Henry played by ear whereas the educated and refined Jefferson knew his notation.
Jefferson accumulated a number of violins during his lifetime, the most prized thought to have been a Cremonese instrument (Cremona, Italy, being the “royal capital” of violin making, the home of Stradivari and the Amati and Guarneri families). This may have been the one he acquired from his relative John Randolph around the start of the Revolution. Jefferson had coveted this instrument for a long time, and Randolph in his turn wanted some of Jefferson’s books. The two men worked out a deal whereby the objects would be bequeathed at the death of either man. When Randolph, the attorney general of Virginia and a loyalist, had to forsake the colony for England, he gave Jefferson the violin.
An earlier violin of Jefferson’s had been acquired in 1768 for five pounds from a druggist in Williamsburg. When the Jefferson family home, Shadwell, burned down in 1770, the violin was one of the few possessions to be saved. Legend has it that Jefferson asked about the fate of his books and violin before he asked about his mother.
Another of Jefferson’s violins was something of a curiosity: a kit, or miniature pocket fiddle often used by dancing masters. Jefferson brought this along with him attached to his saddle while traveling on horseback, the more easily to play the folk tunes he loved so much for friends at gatherings of Virginia gentry. The kit played a key role in his courtship of his future wife, Martha Wayles Skelton.
Martha was young, beautiful, and recently widowed. The story is told that Jefferson was riding past her home when he heard her singing and accompanying herself on the harpsichord. He jumped off his horse, took his kit and introduced himself to Martha. Soon the two were singing and playing a duet. The rest of the story is as follows:
Two of Mr. Jefferson’s rivals happened to meet on Mrs. Skelton’s door-stone. They were shown into a room from which they heard her harpsichord and voice, accompanied by Mr. Jefferson’s violin and voice, in the passages of a touching song. They listened for a stanza or two. Whether something in the words, or in the tones of the singers appeared suggestive to them, tradition does not say, but it does aver that they took their hats and retired, to return no more on the same errand.
The Jefferson daughters took after their mother with an avid talent for keyboard instruments, in which their father also showed a notable curiosity—perhaps not surprising considering his technical mind. Jefferson’s life coincided with the transition from the harpsichord to the fortepiano (eventually called simply the piano) as the standard domestic keyboard instrument, and he experimented with both, often devising improvements or additions. Jefferson ordered from London two Kirkman harpsichords, one of the finest makes available, for his daughters Patsy and Polly, as well as enrolling them in lessons.
With its intricate system of keys, pedals and levers, the harpsichord and emergent piano appealed to the Age of Reason’s interest in the technical and mechanical. Jefferson took an active role in the tuning and upkeep of the instruments. In particular, he had become enamored of the celestina, a device that allowed the harpsichord to play sustained tones like an organ or violin, and added one to his daughter’s harpsichord. Operated by a pedal at the player’s foot, it consisted of a band of silk thread that passed over a pulley and was brought in contact with the strings of the harpsichord, creating a continuous sustained tone rather than the short, plucked sound harpsichords normally make.
The quest for greater power and sustain of sound and for control of dynamics in a keyboard instrument was increasingly felt in the era and eventually led the piano to prevail over the harpsichord. In 1770 Jefferson asked a London dealer to obtain a clavichord (another plucked keyboard instrument of soft timbre) for Martha, his future wife, but soon changed his order to a fortepiano. The contest was by no means decided in the piano’s favor, however, and during this era many of our common musical instruments were still evolving. Years later, Jefferson teamed up with fellow polymath Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence as well as a congressman and composer, to experiment with improvements to the mechanical action of harpsichords.
Jefferson and Franklin
Another of Jefferson’s friends, Benjamin Franklin, was himself a musical amateur of some ingenuity. He and had in 1761 invented the glass (h)armonica, another example of applying technology to improve a simple idea. Franklin had seen musicians in London make music by rubbing a series of filled drinking glasses at a table. He systematized this by replacing the glasses with a series of rotating glass bowls fixed to a spindle, each bowl keyed to a different pitch; rubbed with moistened fingers, they produced an ethereal kind of music. When Franklin surprised his wife by playing the new instrument outside her bedchamber one night, she thought she heard “the music of angels.” He continued performing on it for the rest of his life. The instrument greatly impressed the Parisians when Franklin served as ambassador there and became popular throughout Europe; Mozart wrote two compositions for it. Franklin commented thus on his invention:
The advantages of this instrument are, that its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other; that they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressures of the finger, and continued to any length; and that the instrument, being well tuned, never again wants tuning.
Jefferson suggested further improving Franklin’s glass harmonica by adding a keyboard and expanding its range of three octaves to six. These experiments unfortunately never met with success, but they illustrate the quest of marrying technology to music that he and Franklin shared.
In 1784, during the Revolution, Jefferson met with Franklin and John Adams in Paris to negotiate commercial treaties with the French. He did not neglect musical life while there, either. He attended concerts, the opera, home chamber music evenings, and more. Jefferson the violinist thrilled to the performances of Giovanni Battista Viotti and Rudolphe Kreutzer, two of the renowned violinist-composers of the day who originated a new, heroic and expressive style of violin music. He heard George Bridgetower, the child violin prodigy of mixed race who would one day premiere Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. In London he befriended Charles Burney, the expert on music history, who also supervised the building of his daughter Patsy’s harpsichord.
Back in America, Jefferson turned his attention to new musical experiments. A French inventor had recently devised a forerunner of the metronome—the pendulum-based device that musicians use to keep time and set accurate tempos. Jefferson took it upon himself to simplify the device and teach musicians how to make it for themselves (something the original inventor probably would not have liked!) Calculating the number of beats per minute of each of the common tempos—Largo, Adagio, Andante, Allegro, and Presto—he arranged the pendulum so that it would swing the appropriate times per minute for each tempo.
Jefferson also designed another practical musical item: a portable music stand, inspired by ones he had seen in Paris. Still in the collection at Monticello, it is a revolving device with five music tables that can accommodate that many players and folds up neatly like a box.
Compared with Europe, Jefferson lamented the fact that classical music was “in a state of deplorable barbarism in America.” It was steadily improving, however, particularly in Philadelphia, where a variety of musical performances were held. Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809), an immigrant musician and composer from England, helped organize the Philadelphia City Concerts, held in a hotel on Chestnut Street and including a variety of vocal and instrumental music. Records show that already in the colonial period Americans were buying fine musical instruments and imported sheet music from England as well as books about music theory and aesthetics. A musical culture was gradually growing, putting the lie to the notion (which would be a long time dying) of America as a cultural backwater.
Jefferson saw to it that his home, Monticello, resounded with good music—even though an injury to his right wrist sustained during a fall in Paris in 1786 ensured that he would never again play the violin as regularly as he had. He had a music salon built and furnished it with a piano, harpsichord, violins, a cello, and a guitar. Indeed, he longed to have his own small orchestra at Monticello, made up of domestic servants who could play specific instruments. The plan never came to fruition, although during the Revolution captured and paroled British and Hessian soldiers did come to Monticello to play in weekly concerts. A few of these Europeans are on record expressing a high opinion of Jefferson’s skill on the violin.
The music of the enslaved people at Monticello did not escape Jefferson’s notice, and he commented on their love of the “banjar” (banjo), an instrument that in time would become an American folk staple.
At a time when dancing was considered an essential social attainment, Jefferson took dancing lessons himself and ordered them for his daughters. He indeed took an active role in directing his daughters’ education, which was more extensive than that for many women of the day and in which music had a prominent place. He engaged the best keyboard instructors for them and bought and repaired their keyboard instruments; and we have seen how he insisted that they keep up their practice and integrate music into their lives.
A good part of Jefferson’s music library at Monticello has survived, and we also have a catalogue of its contents which he made in 1783. What we find there is altogether typical of the graceful, elegant, civilized and bourgeois taste of the middle and late 18th century. There is nothing by Johann Sebastian Bach, and only one piece by Mozart. There is, however, the rococo Johann Christian Bach, as well as Corelli, Handel, Haydn, and Boccherini. There is also a good number of those 18th-century composers now considered “minor” who enjoyed great vogue in their day, like Carlo Antonio Campioni, who judging from the number of scores would appear to have been one of Jefferson’s favorites. Jefferson owned several volumes of Vivaldi at a time when his music had been mostly forgotten. Corelli’s violin sonatas, especially his variations on La Folia, seem to have given Jefferson a good deal of pleasure, and their virtuosity indicate his level of skill as an amateur violinist. There are also a good many psalms and Anglican church hymns, which Jefferson’s granddaughter said he enjoyed.
Sadly, although a number of candidates have been proposed, none of Jefferson’s violins has come to light. It so happens that Jefferson’s many musical purchases—an unaccustomed extravagance for him—succeeded in breaking Monticello’s finances, and after his death the violins were auctioned off along with much else. They made their way to England, but their subsequent whereabouts are a mystery; possibly, they are out there somewhere, waiting to be identified.
Jefferson once declared that “Science is my passion, politics is my duty”; and as we have seen, music for him intersected with science and the technical side of life. But he was not merely a musical tinkerer, as proven by his sheet music collection and the attested quality of his violin playing; only someone whose “ear was singularly correct” (in the words of his granddaughter Ellen Coolidge) could have tuned and adjusted his family’s keyboard instruments so that they were more pleasing to hear.
Although music was arguably the least of Thomas Jefferson’s accomplishments, it did hold a notable place within a cultured and humanistic life—a point reinforced by his insistence on having music instruction at his newly founded University of Virginia. This shows the importance Jefferson placed on music in the life of the mind, just as his involvement with music throughout his life enhances his image as an ornament to American culture. To close with his own words to James Madison:
You see that I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world and procure them its praise.
Bigelow, John ed. The Works of Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1904.
Cripe, Helen. Thomas Jefferson and Music. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974.
Elzey, Claudia. “Violins.” Monticello website. Accessed March 24, 2021.
“Music, the Favorite Passion of my Soul.” Monticello website. Accessed March 24, 2021.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is an oil painting of Thomas Jefferson (1786) by Mather Brown. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.