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  • Music
  • Myron Gray
KEY WORDS

music, song, print, notation, score, music sheet, sound, performance, orality, literacy, materiality, “Hail Columbia”, Benjamin Carr, “President’s March”, Philip Phile

In the study of early America, sound is an impossible object. Performance per se is irrecoverable, so when speaking of music as a category of early American material text, we necessarily speak of writing and print. In this regard music is not special. Like any other past event, it’s gone. Whatever we might learn from descriptions and transcriptions of sounding music, there remains an unbridgeable gap between early American musical performance and its verbal and music-notational documentation. The following account of the premiere of the popular Federalist anthem “Hail Columbia” at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theatre on April 25, 1798, for instance, offers an impression of a sonic event:

Never was any thing received with applause so hearty and so universal. The Song was sung at the end of the comedy, as mentioned in bills; it was called for again at the end of the pantomime, and again after all the performances were over, and encored every time. At every repetition it was received with additional enthusiasm, ’till, towards the last, a great part of the audience, pit, box, and gallery, actually joined in the chorus.—It was very pleasing to observe, that the last stanza received particular marks of approbation. Every one was closed with long and loud clappings and huzzas, but no sooner were the words, “Behold the Chief who now commands,” pronounced, than the house shook to its very centre; the song and the whole [band] were drowned in the enthusiastic peals of applause, and were obliged to stop and begin again and again, in order to gain a hearing.1

Similarly, the Philadelphia music publisher Benjamin Carr’s arrangement of “Hail Columbia” for voice and keyboard represents one iteration of the song’s melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic content (figure 1). Neither document, however, relates the actual sonic phenomenon of a performance. What were the [End Page 714] amplitude and timbre of the instrument(s) and voice(s)? Where were they positioned? What were the acoustic properties of the hall or room? What were the temperature and humidity? What other objects and materials occupied the space? These and other obscure conditions shape irretrievable sound. As a result, for purposes of textual analysis before the advent of sound recording in the late nineteenth century, music cannot be sound.2


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Figure 1.

Philip Phile and Joseph Hopkinson, “The favorite new Federal Song” (“Hail Columbia”) (Philadelphia: Carr, 1798), 1. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

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It is perhaps due to the irreversible loss of historical musical performance, however, that a misguided notion of the relationship between notated and sounding music persists. We want scores to offer portals into bygone worlds of musical sonority, so the prevailing wisdom on musical notation is that it mediates sound. No less esteemed a musicologist than Kate van Orden has argued that scores have a “performative nature.” Building on the work of Roger Chartier, which aims to blur distinctions between the textual world of print and the performative realm of orality, she insists that “musical texts presume a musical performance.”3 In this view sound frames notation. Scores are tools that rescue invisible, ephemeral music from oblivion, rendering it as a visible and static arrangement of signs to be decoded when sound is remade. It could hardly be otherwise when Western music history begins with the systematic writing of medieval Christian chant. At its inception notation is for sound, a means of transmission. But not only does orality precede and subsume literacy in the grand scheme of music history, the primacy of performance is reinforced whenever someone uses notation to transcribe sound or plays or sings from a musical score.

Confusing matters further, the seeming intangibility of sound has invited thinkers since Plato to identify music with the metaphysical. The transience and emotional force of music lend it a certain mystique, and so there is a tradition of speculation that music touches a world otherwise inaccessible to human consciousness.4 One consequence of the supposed kinship of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0895
Print ISSN
1543-4273
Pages
pp. 714-720
Launched on MUSE
2018-11-05
Open Access
No
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