Jefferson and Music

“Music is the favorite passion of my soul…”
“Music is a delightful recreation through life.”
—Thomas Jefferson

As A Renaissance man, Jefferson was an individual of many passions and interests: language, science, law, architecture, art, and horticulture, to list just a few. But, music held a special niche in his psyche. Music to him was “an enjoyment, the deprivation of which cannot be calculated.” This passion is not surprising, since music allowed the usually stoic and staid Jefferson an avenue to release his emotions in what was a carefully regimented life.

As part of the Virginia elite, Jefferson was given a “gentleman’s education.” This course of study was somewhat different than the curriculum of today. Philip Fithian, in 1774, wrote that a Virginia gentleman “is presumed to be acquainted with dancing, boxing, playing the fiddle, and small sword and cards.” As per his nature, Jefferson went beyond just an acquaintance with music.

Jefferson’s first musical love was the violin, though he was proficient also with the cello. He play violin since boyhood. It is not known when he took up the instrument, but he could play quite well by the age of fourteen when he entered Maury’s boarding school. By this time, he was copying his father’s favorite tunes, along with religious and classical works into music books.

It is also not known who initially instructed Jefferson in the violin or his introduction to music, but it was not by ear or rote. He knew how to read notation. On one of his first trips to Williamsburg, Jefferson met Patrick Henry, an accomplished fiddler. Henry played by ear. This, very graphically, shows the differences between these two Revolutionary Virginians; the educated, calculating Jefferson and the rough and tumbled, firebrand, Henry.

When Jefferson enrolled at the College of William and Mary, he neglected his violin for a while. But, when he began the study of law under George Wythe, he engaged an Italian émigré, Francis Alberti, to further his mastery of the instrument. His ability and relationship with Wythe produced an introduction to the royal governor, Francis Fauquier, himself a musician. This brought about regular invitations to the royal palace to play chamber music. Jefferson, at this time, was probably not proficient enough to play first violin in this august assembly, but he was able to assume the second role on violin or played the cello.

By this association, the much younger Jefferson rubbed elbows with the elite of the Colony. The harpsichordist was Robert Carter, probably the wealthiest man in Virginia and the main was violinist John Tyler, who later became governor. Jefferson stated of these concerts: “I have learned more good sense, more rational and philosophical conversation than in all my life besides.”

After Jefferson was admitted to the bar to practice law, he became an ardent student of the violin. During this time, up until the Revolution, he practiced at least three hours a day. He persuaded Alberti to come live at Monticello and continued his lessons with the maestro.

Jefferson was always on the hunt for musical instruments, not only to play, but to also tinker with. He purchased a violin from Williamsburg druggist, Dr. William Pasteur, for five pounds in 1768. When his mother’s house, Shadwell burned, this was one of his few possessions that was saved. It was reported that he asked about his books and his violin before he inquired about his mother. He was able to acquire his finest violin, said to have been made in Cremona, from his relative John Randolf, for 13 pounds at the outbreak of the Revolution. Jefferson had coveted his instrument for years and Randolf had wanted some of Jefferson’s books. They could not work out a trade, so they drew up an agreement in which the desired objects would be bequeathed at the death of either of the men. Randolf, the attorney general of Virginia, was a staunch Royalist and left the colony for England. Due to Randolf’s circumstances, he needed to liquidate a number of his assts and sold the violin.

Jefferson, also had a portable dance-master pocket fiddle and case that could be attached to his saddle. This is probably the instrument he utilized as the social gatherings of the day. The gentry of Virginia were constantly inviting guests to spend the week and the

entertainment was provided by the musical talents of the host and guests. Jefferson was in constant demand because of his playing ability, certainly not for his conversational skills. It is at one of these occasions that he met his future wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. She was an accomplished harpsichordist.

Martha was young, attractive, and a rich widow. She had many suitors in the colony. It would seem that the shy, awkward Jefferson did not have a chance for Martha’s hand, but music allowed him to win her. Henry S. Randall in his 1858 biography of Jefferson related the following family story of their courtship:

Two of Mr. Jefferson’s rivals happened to meet on Mrs. Shelton’s door-stone. They were shown into a room from which they heard her harpsichord and voice, accompanied by Mr. Jefferson’s violin and voice, in the passages of a touching song. They listened for a stanza or two. Whether something in the words, or in the tones of the singers appeared suggestive to them, tradition does not say, but it does aver that they took their hats and retire, to return no more on the same errand.

As a wedding present, Jefferson ordered a clavichord for Martha but changed his mind when he had seen the new piano-forte. Ever the tinkerer, he wanted to examine it in detail. He wrote his agent in London: “I have since seen a Forte-Piano and am charmed by it. Send me this instrument then, instead of the Clavichord; let the case be of fine mahogany, solid not veneered, the compass from Double G to F in alt, and plenty of spare strings; and the workmanship of the whole very handsome and worth of the acceptance of a lady for who I intend it.”

Jefferson and Martha established a music salon at Monticello. It was furnished with a piano-forte, harpsichord, violins, cello, and guitar which Martha also played. The salon also included a walnut music stand designed by Jefferson. It had four adjustable shelves to hold sheet music for a quartet. The couple had an extensive music library ranging from drinking songs to Handel.

Jefferson’s most ambitious musical dream was to have his own orchestra at Monticello. He desired to hire master craftsmen from Europe to build his mansion, but they also needed to play specific instruments. He wrote in 1778:

The bounds of an American fortune will not admit the indulgence of a domestic band of musicians, yet I have thought that a passion for music might be reconciled with that economy which we are obliged to observe. I retain among my domestic servants, a gardener, a weaver, a cabinet-maker and a stone-cutter, to which I would add a vigneron. In a country where, like (Italy), music is cultivated and practiced by every class of man, I suppose there might be found persons of these trades who could perform on the French horn, clarinet, or hautboy and bassoon, so that one might have a band of two French horns, two clarinets, two hautboys, and a bassoon without enlarging their domestic expenses. A certainty of employment for half a dozen years, and at the end of that time to find them, if they choose, a conveyance to their own country, might induce them to come here on reasonable urges…sobriety and good nature would be desirable parts of their character.

Jefferson’s plans were dashed by the Revolution. The closest he came to his own musical group was in 1779 when paroled, captured British and Hessian officers, that were interned in Charlottesville, would come to Monticello to perform in weekly concerts.

Jefferson passed his love of music on to his daughters. They were expected to practice several hours each day. He advised them, “Do not neglect your music. It will be a companion which will sweeten many hours of life to you.” Both daughters were accomplished on keyboard instruments and the guitar.

As Minister to France, Jefferson took advantage of all the music Paris had to offer. He purchased music stands, violin and guitar strings, a new violin, guitar, bird organ and a harpsichord for his daughter Patsy, as well as an extensive amount of sheet music. He also engaged guitar and harpsichord teachers for his daughters.

It was while in Paris that Jefferson’s violin playing was severely hampered. Trying to impress a young lady, (Martha had passed away by this time) Jefferson attempted to leap over a fence. His foot caught the top rail and when he fell he landed on his wrist, shattering it. It never healed properly.

This injury did not dampen his enthusiasm for music or musical instruments. Jefferson tuned and restored his daughter’s keyboard instruments. He was fascinated with the technical aspects of instruments and bought the latest gadgets for them. He continue to add to his sheet music library.

Jefferson passed his lover for music on to his grandchildren, often to detriment of his own finances. His granddaughter, Virginia Randolph Trist remembered:

I had for a long time a great desire to have a guitar. A lady of our neighborhood was going to the West and wished to part with her guitar, but she asked so high a price that I never in my dreams aspired to its possession…grandpa told me that if I would promise to learn to play on it, I should have it. I shall never forget my ecstasies. I was but fourteen years old, and the first wish of my heart was unexpectedly gratified.

These continued purchases wreaked havoc on the retired president’s economy. Jefferson, ever the rational man, was completely irrational when it came to his own finances. In 1826, the year he dies, he ordered a piano for Virginia. His financial situation was so desperate that a public lottery to aid him was proposed. His grandson, Jeff, who was running Monticello, objected to the extravagant act. But Jefferson and Virginia got their piano. After his death, Monticello was so encumbered that most of the instruments and the music library were sold at auction.