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  • A Grand Selection of Sacred Music: Benjamin Carr and Early Nineteenth Century Catholic Music in Philadelphia
  • Robert R. Grimes S.J.

On the evening of Wednesday, May 8, 1844, amidst some of the worst violence an American city had yet experienced outside of war, St. Augustine Catholic Church in Philadelphia was set on fire. In less than an hour, the cross atop its tower had fallen to the ground to the cheers of the anti-Catholic mob.1 Also destroyed that night was a plaque inside the church that read:

This tablet was erected by the members of the choir of St. Augustine’s church, in grateful and affectionate remembrance of Benjamin Carr, its founder, and for thirty years organist and director, who died in this city on the 28th of May 1831, in the sixty-fourth year of his age. May he rest in peace. Amen.2

Elsewhere I have argued that Philadelphia was central to the development of Catholic music in the first years of the new republic.3 In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia continued to hold that position, although its leadership passed to a new generation. Benjamin Carr is well known in American music history as a music publisher, performer, conductor, teacher, and composer, but his role in developing musical life within Philadelphia’s Catholic community is often overlooked. Although not a Catholic himself, he was central to promoting a more sophisticated musical life in the city’s Catholic parishes from 1801 until his death thirty years later. He did so as a leader among musicians of his generation and teacher and mentor to those of the next. [End Page 21]

Benjamin Carr’s Early Life

Carr was born in London on September 12, 1768, son of Joseph Carr, proprietor of a music establishment, and Mary Jordan. Two of his siblings would survive to adulthood: John, born in 1772, who became a well-known British travel writer, and Thomas born in 1780. His father initially taught Benjamin music; he later continued studies with Samuel Arnold, the composer and organist at Westminster Abbey, as well as with Charles Wesley, Jr., son of the great Methodist hymn writer. He quickly established a favorable reputation within London musical circles, and by the early 1790s was a principal tenor and harpsichordist at the Academy of Ancient Music and had his first opera performed at the Sadler’s Wells Theater.4 Despite his success, Benjamin Carr, his mother, father, and brother Thomas, immigrated to the United States in 1793, with Benjamin settling in Philadelphia and his parents and Thomas in Baltimore.

Carr had not chosen the most advantageous time to arrive in Philadelphia, for the great yellow fever epidemic broke out shortly after his arrival, but by late November he was able to announce the opening of his new “musical repository” in a permanent location, delayed by “the recent calamity.”5 He soon had a shop in New York City as well, and his father Joseph opened the same in Baltimore. His career blossomed in the mid-1790s with performances of his musical compositions, appearances as a performer on stage and in concert, and an expanding retail business. A setback occurred when the New York store burned, but it was repaired and then sold to James Hewitt in 1797. As the decade ended, however, problems seemed to arise with his business.

In the Philadelphia Gazette of January 18, 1800, three advertisements reveal Benjamin Carr’s fortunes. The first reports that the inventory of his musical repository had been assigned to his father Joseph who was selling off the merchandise at reduced prices. The second notifies his creditors of a deadline for making claims against his property. The third indicates a new but humbler beginning. This single advertisement announces that Joseph Carr of Baltimore would publish a musical journal “selected and arranged by Benjamin Carr of Philadelphia,” who now “has the leisure to attend a few pupils on the Piano Forte.” He would also be available to tune pianos on a regular basis.6 Clearly something had gone quite wrong.

Carr and St. Augustine’s Church

The independence of the United States also portended greater freedom for Catholics...


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