About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

January 2, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Music

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Reading Jon Meacham's marvelous Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power I noted references to Jefferson's love of music and found my way back to Thomas Jefferson and Music by Helen Cripe (University Press of Virginia, 1974) and then to Jefferson Himself, a volume entirely of Jefferson's own words edited by Bernard Mayo, 1942, to expand on the subject.

Jefferson indeed loved music ("Music is the favorite passion of my soul...") and especially enjoyed playing the violin and singing with his sister Jane when he was young. Later he encouraged his family to play and study music as part of his quest to provide them a broad education like his own (and to develop "resources against ennui").

To his daughter Patsy:
With respect to the distribution of your time, the following is what I should approve:  From 8 to 10, practice music.....
Jefferson acquired several violins, all lost now, harpsichords and pianos, and a glass armonica, a bizarre instrument using glasses filled with water invented by Benjamin Franklin. (Mozart wrote a quintet for it.) It isn't clear that Jefferson understood that studying and playing music can have the strong impact on the brain and learning in general as we know now (Learning Music makes Kids Smarter, Oct 11) but he did realize that the ability to play and appreciate music, like the other arts, could enrich one's life. The Jefferson family's huge collection of music, the Monticello Music Collection stored in the Alderman Library in Charlottesville, ranges far and wide in style and origin.

Many visitors to Jefferson's home at Monticello remarked about the wonderful evenings with good food and wine, sophisticated conversation, and musical performances, usually including Jefferson himself. One wonders how good a violinist he was. Many contemporaries extolled his musicality, for their own various purposes. The most reliable critic was probably granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge:
With regard to Mr. Jefferson's skill on the violin....Mr. Randall's idea that he became "one of the best violinists of his day" is a little extreme. My grandfather would, I believe, have disclaimed it. When we remember that the violin is a most difficult instrument, and that great proficiency in the management of it requires the labor of a life--that sixteen hours out of twenty-four have sometimes been devoted to it, we see at once that the time given to music by Mr. Jefferson could never have accomplished more than a gentlemanly proficiency. No amateur violinist could hope to equal a professor. Mr. Jefferson [They still call him "Mr. Jefferson" in Charlottesville] played I believe very well indeed, but not so well as to stand a comparison with many other persons especially such as he must have met with abroad."
And indeed Jefferson must have heard a lot of good music in Paris. Mozart's opera, The Marriage of Figaro, premiered during his five years there. Regarding music in Paris: "...[music] particularly is an enjoyment the deprivation of which with us cannot be calculated. I am almost ready to say it is the only thing which from my heart I envy them (Parisians)...." 

But his earlier rhapsodizing, "Music...is the favorite passion of my soul" continues: "and fortune has cast my lot in a country where it is in a state of deplorable barbarism.... In a country like [Italy], music is cultivated and practiced by every class of men, 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 [at Monticello, perhaps].... Sobriety and good nature would be desirable parts of their characters."  Sobriety and good nature being well-known traits of musicians, of course.

Some observers have suggested that "deplorable state of barbarism" was also a little too extreme as a way to characterize American music in Jefferson's lifetime. (Others point out that he may not have listened to music his 600 slaves might have made.) But consider the following announcement of an event in Williamsburg--when Jefferson was surely there--from Thomas Jefferson and Music. It calls to my mind some suggestions for what Gretna Music could present in place of arcane chamber music to build our audience.
By Permission of his excellency, the governor, for the entertainment of the curious: On Friday the 14th of this Instant April will be exhibited, at the theater in Williamsburg, by Peter Gardiner, a curious set of figures, richly dressed, four feet high, which shall appear upon the stage as if alive; to which will be added a tragedy called Babes in the Wood: also a curious view of waterworks, representing the sea, with all manner of sea monsters sporting upon the waves. Likewise fireworks, together with the taking of the Havannah, with shops, forts, and batteries, continually firing, until victory crowns the conquest; to which will be added a curious field of battle, containing the Dutch, French, Prussian, and English forces, which shall regularly march and perform the different exercises to great perfection. The performer will lay his head on one chair and his feet on another, and suffer a large rock of 300 weight to be broke on his breast with a sledge hammer. Tickets to be had at the Raleigh Tavern...."
 (You can't find it on YouTube.)


  1. Very interesting as always, Carl. During my only visit to Monticello, I was taken by the beautiful wood music stand that was available for sale in the "Shoppe." I think it cost $350. It was, indeed, tempting.

    I was also surprised to read Jefferson's reference to the "French horn." I seriously doubt that the instrument during these times was called that. This nomenclature is probably a 20th century “convenience” invention. The International Horn Society insists on "horn" as the official name of the modern instrument, but it still doesn’t work because nobody seems to know what you mean when you say, "I play the horn." The "trompe du chasse" was around though (and still is). Maybe it was "lost in translation."

  2. Jefferson wrote "French horn" in English almost certainly--so there is little chance of translation error--in 1778, before he spent 5 years in Paris. Sorry that I couldn't add -DB to your comment.