Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Hudson River Maritime Museum's 2017 issue of the Pilot Log.
Music is an integral part of our everyday lives, from singing in the shower, to the theme songs of our favorite TV shows and the soundtracks of the commercials that punctuate them. We stream it from our cellphones through ear buds, and seek out live performances in concert halls, sports arenas and more intimate settings. It adorns our religious services, and drifts and pulses from hidden speakers in our shopping malls prodding us on subliminally to buy, buy, buy. And so it has always been.
In the days before the advent of the phonograph and radio, sheet music was the primary means of musical transmission, much of it intended for amateur performance, some of it as souvenirs. Learning to sing and play piano was considered an important part of every young lady’s education in the early 19th century, as was learning to play the flute or violin for every young man’s. In this manner, music was brought into the home, with amateur musical performances even a common feature of many social gatherings.
Typically, sheet music was purchased by the individual piece, and when the pile grew unwieldy, gathered up and taken to a local bookbinder to be bound into an album. Albums of Hudson Valley amateur musicians frequently contain pieces with references to the Hudson River and its valley. Taken together, these artifacts provide an interesting window on the past.
The opening of the Erie Canal, which turned the Hudson River into the gateway to the west, was commemorated by The Meeting of the Waters of Hudson & Erie, written by S. Woodworth, sung by Mr. Keene at the Grand Canal Celebration, and Respectfully Dedicated to his Excellency DeWitt Clinton. The French immigrant composer, Florent Meline, who spent several years in Albany as the resident composer and arranger for the Euterpean Club, a musical association comprised of gentleman amateurs of the town, memorialized Lafayette’s visit to America in his, The Marquis de La Fayette’s Welcome to North America, arranged for piano and flute or violin, and published in Albany by the composer.
The Hudson River’s prominence as the America’s premier river and the birthplace of Romanticism in American arts and letters is captured by the cover illustrations adorning pieces such as Where Hudson’s Wave (1839), composed by Joseph Philip Knight, with words by the prominent New York City poet, George Pope Morris. Morris’ Hudson River estate, Undercliff, was featured on the cover of William Dempster’s, I’m with you once Again.
Composers and musicians of the period were active up and down the river, serving as organists and choir directors, as band directors for local militias, steamboats and society gatherings, and as teachers of piano and voice at the numerous academies where music was always featured among the ornamental branches. Settling in a locale for a year or two, these musicians would leave behind published compositions written for specific purposes and occasions, from balls connected to local militia encampments to light dance pieces dedicated to the daughters of prominent citizens, perhaps to gain their patronage.
The collection of the Hudson River Maritime Museum contains one such piece of sheet music, The Alida Waltz (Firth, Pond & Co.,1847), by Johann Munck. It must have been a popular piece in its day as it appears in several Hudson Valley collections. The steamboat Alida, began service on the Hudson between New York City and Albany on April 16, 1947, the same year Munck’s waltz was published. Munck’s band performed frequently in Saratoga and Newport, Rhode Island. Perhaps it played aboard the Alida on its first trip up the Hudson River, as well. The music was published as a piano transcription of a piece performed by the band. Piano transcriptions of music performed by bands or orchestras were often intended as souvenirs, perhaps, in this instance, to be sold aboard the Alida.
Sheet music covers contain many clues to the social and cultural life of the Hudson Valley in the early 19th century, and provide a rich context for the music inside.
The Alida Waltz
Listen to a recording of The Alida Waltz below! From the Hudson River Maritime Museum Collections.
Geoffrey Miller is the Ulster County Historian and Project Director of the Reher Center for Immigrant History and Culture.
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Hudson River Maritime Museum
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