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  • Cultivated by Hand: Amateur Musicians in the Early American Republic by Glenda Goodman
  • Suzanne G. Cusick (bio)

Music, Music theory, Early American republic, Manuscript music books

Cultivated by Hand: Amateur Musicians in the Early American Republic. By Glenda Goodman. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 244. Cloth, $55.00.)

The evening before my first lesson, when I was nine, the teacher told my mother to go to the music store and buy a music notebook—an oblong paper-bound book of staff paper, bound with staples down the middle gathering. That night I pored over the primer of music’s signs and symbols on the inside cover, trying my still-clumsy hand at writing music for the first time—thrilled at the idea that with each crudely written note I moved deeper into a previously unknowable world that I longed to know.

What would someone finding that notebook in an old trunk make of it now, seeing both my first efforts at writing noteheads and, a year later, my first efforts to write down the tunes my mother hummed as she cooked? How could richly contextualized study of that book, and who its owner grew up to be, illuminate musical life and subjectivity in the United States more than half a century ago? The project of Glenda Goodman’s subtle, startlingly original Cultivated by Hand is, partly, to answer such questions [End Page 477] about the manuscript books copied and owned by elite white Americans of the Northeast in this country’s first forty years of nationhood.

To be clear, Cultivated by Hand is neither quite a history of early American manuscript music books nor quite a history of their owners. Readers expecting either a close study of particular manuscripts or a historical interpretation of the role of music in individual persons’ subjectivities will risk misreading, and feeling frustrated as a result. Rather, Cultivated by Hand asks to be read as a retelling of the history of elite white music-making in this country’s first forty years from a point of view that is the meeting point of the books and their makers. That is, it asks to be read as an essay—a thought experiment in prose that adumbrates a new historiography of musical life in the United States. Cultivated by Hand ignores the traditional music historical narrative, which tells music history as the story of music professionals. Instead, Goodman focuses on amateurs—white, elite amateurs in the Northeast—who were both consumers of music and, because of the discipline, labor, and materials required to copy the music out (much less to learn to play and sing it), producers of a sort, and reproducers. The fusion of consumer and (re) producer in a single person’s subjectivity produces an ambiguity that helpfully pervades Cultivated by Hand, enabling Goodman to convey a nuanced sense of all the economic and social relations invoked when the owner of such a book transformed its musical notations into sound.

As an essay, Goodman’s book also defies the last few generations’ fashionable insistence that every book argue a strongly articulated thesis. The book as a whole is the thesis, answering the question “what would this era’s music historiography be like if we focused on non-professional music-making?” through the development of three clearly articulated themes— the material aspects of music books; the training of amateur musicians; and the sociocultural ramification of amateur music-making. The three themes are developed differently across five chapters that focus, respectively, on labor, discipline, consumerism, accomplishment, and taste. Each chapter uses one or more manuscripts, and what the historical record reveals about their owners, as point(s) where elements of the usual music history of this period converge—in unexpected ways.

For me, the most powerful chapter was the third, “Consumerism and the Materiality of Music,” which focuses on the manuscript collections of two extremely wealthy women, Sarah Brown Herreshoff (one of the Providence Browns of slave-trading and abolitionist fame) and Elizabeth Sanders Van Rensselaer (of the landed patroon family based near Albany). [End Page 478] Goodman notes that each woman’s ownership of multiple music books was evidence of her...


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pp. 477-480
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