"O Dear, What Can the Matter Be?": The Urban Early Republic and the Politics of Popular Song in Benjamin Carr's Federal Overture
Abstract

This essay scrutinizes a musical medley, the Federal Overture, and its performance context at Philadelphia's Southwark Theater in 1794. Benjamin Carr had been commissioned by the Old American Company's managers to compose a piece that would include popular, Federalist, and French Revolutionary songs in an attempt to still audience violence that threatened to ruin their commercial venture in the newly legalized theater of the 1790s. Drawing primarily upon the musical score itself, newspaper accounts, and personal papers, the essay argues that changing performance norms and expectations about audience behavior are crucial to a full understanding of the polarized urban early republic that is too often assessed in narrowly partisan terms. Serious attention to popular culture, like theater music, should aspire to do more than merely add color to a long-established political narrative about the early republic. Because of the success of the Federal Overture as part of the Old American Company's touring repertoire, its circulation as sheet music, and parallel struggles over the performance context of theater in Boston and New York, a microhistorical assessment of Carr's overture helps us access and assess the critically contested public space of postwar but still revolutionary U.S. society.


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