The Other Life of Francis Hopkinson
America’s First Composer of Music
By D.E. Vitale
Born in Philadelphia in 1737, son of a distinguished father and a pious mother, Hopkinson graduated from the College of Philadelphia, studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1765.
Drawing the attention of the royal government, he obtained the appointment of Collector of the Customs in New Jersey. Eventually, however, his sympathy to the revolutionary movement required him to resign his position, whereupon he was elected to represent New Jersey as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776. After the War, he was commissioned as a Judge of the Pennsylvania Admiralty Court. Later, George Washington appointed him to the office of Judge of the United States for the district of Pennsylvania.
However, hidden behind Hopkinson’s impressive political career, were his achievements as a writer and composer of music in 18th century America. In fact, the record leaves little doubt that Hopkinson was America’s first composer of secular music.
At the age of 17, after learning to play the harpsichord, Hopkinson invented a new method of quilling that instrument. As an amateur musician he often joined music ensembles and gave concerts. When he was 33 he succeeded his harpsichord teacher as organist of Christ Church in Philadelphia.
Over the course of his life he was the author of several songs, psalms and anthems. Among his songs were The Treaty, The New Roof and the popular ballad, The Battle of The Kegs. At the age of 21 Hopkinson wrote “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” based on Thomas Parnell’s “Love and Innocence.”
Hopkinson is credited with America’s first attempt at “grand opera.” His “Temple of Minerva,” which he describes as a “Oratorial Entertainment,” was laid out in true operatic style. All of the lines given by the principals— Minerva, the Genius of France, the Genius of America and the High Priest of Minerva— were sung, nothing spoken.
John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail, wrote after meeting Hopkinson:
“He is one of your pretty, little, curious, ingenious men. His head is not bigger than a large apple….I have not met with anything in natural history more amusing and entertaining than his personal appearance; yet he is genteel and well-bred, and is very social.”
In 1778 Hopkinson wrote the words and music for “The Toast,” honoring America’s Commander-In-Chief. The song began with: “……’Tis Washington’s Health, fill a bumper all round.” The lyrics of the song appeared in the Pennsylvania gazette on April 4, 1778. Hopkinson wrote the song while the British held Philadelphia.
Over all, his crowning achievement was written ten years later, “Seven Songs for the Harpsichord.” In his preamble for the music, Hopkinson dedicated the songs to “His Excellency George Washington, Esq.” In the same preamble he claimed credit as “the first Native of the United States who has produced a music composition.”
Replied Washington: “I can neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note on any instrument to convince the unbeliever. But I have, however, one argument which will prevail with persons of true taste (at least in America)— I can tell them that it is the production of Mr. Hopkinson.”
Referring to the “Seven Songs”, an ad in the Federal Gazette in November of 1788 stated:
“These songs are composed in an easy, familiar style intended for young Practitioners on the Harpsichord or Forte Piano, and is the first work of this kind attempted in the United States.”
Francis Hopkinson died in Philadelphia of “a sudden apoplectic fit” at the age of 53 on May 8, 1791.
Writing in 1906, author O.G. Sonneck summed up Hopkinson’s musical achievements: “(Re)…..Hopkinson’s claim of having been the first native of the United States who produced a musical composition…….it is not quite clear whether he…..deserves this title, (but)…..we at least can not refuse Francis Hopkinson the credit of having been our first poet-composer in general, and of songs in particular.
“…..As a composer Francis Hopkinson…..artistically….resembles his contemporaries. His musical world, like theirs, was an untrue Arcadia, populated with over-sentimental shepherds and shepherdesses, or with jolly tars, veritable models of sobriety and good behavior, even when filling huge bumpers for drinking-bouts.
“….But why should we criticize at all our first “musical compositions?” It becomes us better to look upon these primitive efforts as upon venerable documents of the innate love of the American people for the beauties of music and as documents of the fact that among the Signers of the Declaration of Independence there was at least one who proved to be a Successful Patron of Arts and Sciences.”
Echoing these sentiments, Gilbert Chase in “America’s Music,” writes:
“Francis Hopkinson was correct in assuming that his historical priority would secure him a permanent place in the annals of America’s music. It is not so much for his music that we value him, as for his attitude toward music.
“He represented the Golden Age of American culture, in which men of affairs, successful in business and in the conduct of government, thought it no shame not only to love music and practice it in private, but also to make public their love of the “Divine Art.”
“Men like Jefferson, Franklin and Hopkinson, in helping to create a nation that recognized man’s inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, did not overlook the aid and comfort that music can give in this unceasing quest.”