About this Recording
8.559654 - Overtures (The 18th Century American) - HEWITT, J. / CARR, B. / REINAGLE, A. (Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla, P. Gallois)

The 18th Century American Overture
James Hewitt (1770–1827) • Benjamin Carr (1768–1831) • Alexander Reinagle (1756–1827)


Although the United States of America was dominated by the musical culture of Europe during the eighteenth century, it nonetheless boasted of an active musical life. As immigrants with musical talent and ability arrived, they sought to recreate the culture they left behind, and in the various American cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston, one could find public concerts, theatre or opera, and music-making on a professional scale that was every bit as vibrant as in Europe. Public concerts first appeared in Boston in 1729, opera houses were opened in the French cities of Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans around 1735, and subscription concerts began to be held regularly in Charleston by the St Cecilia Society and in Philadelphia from 1762 onwards. These concerts in the colonies regularly featured a blend of chamber music, songs, operas (and the various arias and ensembles therein), and symphonies by European luminaries such as Stamitz and Haydn. In such an environment it was only natural that local composers would begin to write music, especially after the country achieved its independence in the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

It is not known, however, when the first American symphony was composed, but the main contender is a work written by an Italian immigrant, John (i.e. Giovanni) Gualdo, who performed it in November of 1769 in Philadelphia. Called a “new symphony after the present taste”, it was well received, but as its author wound up in an asylum for the insane the next year, it was hardly an auspicious beginning. During the war years and for a decade after the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, a more prurient streak retarded the prospects for symphonic composition, but by 1786 new arrivals of professional composers began to revive and expand music in the major centres. In Philadelphia a Scots immigrant, Alexander Reinagle, arrived that year and within a short time had become America’s leading composer of theatre music. As the new Republic grew and cultural life expanded, other composers, such as the German Johan Christian Moller (1750–1803) and Belgian Marie-Alexandre Guenin (1744–1835) arrived and became active, but it was the trio of three Englishmen, Raynor Taylor (1747–1828), Benjamin Carr (1768–1831), and James Hewitt (1770–1827), who became the most popular composers, publishers, and sellers of instruments in the new country. Each had been trained in London and had been successful in developing a popular genre there called the Medley overture. This was a collection of popular tunes linked with newly-composed transitions, generally in a single extensive movement. This proved to be a sort of sinfonia characteristica, which appealed to audiences in New York and Philadelphia through vivid orchestration and nostalgia. Works such as Hewitt’s Overture in twelve movements expressing a battle became commonplace, and when a political situation developed about 1794 in which the young Republic was engulfed in a debate between the Federalists and the Republicans, those who sought a looser confederation of states versus those who favoured a radical centralized citizens government modeled upon the French Revolution, the symphony, this time under the rubric Federal Overture, became an expression of one’s political or nationalist views.

Given the popularity of this genre, it is unfortunate that almost nothing survives of these works today. Indeed, only seven exist; three works by Reinagle, three by Hewitt, and one by Carr, and of these Carr’s Federal Overture from 1794 and Hewitt’s New Federal Overture from 1796 exist only in piano transcriptions that the composers had printed for general public consumption. The remainder, found in the library of the American Philosophical Society, consists of parts for only the strings, and in the case of the Reinagle Miscellaneous Overture in D major from 1801, there are even pages missing from the first violin part. This would seem to make a reconstruction of this early American symphonic legacy problematic. There are, however, some rather clear-cut indications in these individual parts of the actual orchestration, which can be supplemented by documentary evidence, thus making the task less difficult than might be imagined. For the three Reinagle works, there are indications in the surviving manuscripts of the orchestra consisting of pairs of oboes and bassoons, to which horns would have been added. For the Miscellaneous Overture, some of these cues are written out, and a review of its performance specifically mentions a brief passage for solo horn. Thus, to reconstruct these pieces, it was necessary to follow these cues, and in the case of the horn solo, only one passage in triple metre (and adhering strongly to the tonic and dominant keys, which only a natural horn would be intended to play) seemed to fit: a popular hunting tune entitled “Bright Phoebus” by James Hook. This allowed a simple reconstruction of the missing first violin part, as well. For the Carr Federal Overture, a large orchestration is implied in an announcement in a New York gazette that the performance was done by “the largest band of instruments heretofore assembled”. This would indicate that extras were hired for the event. This included probably oboes (which the piano transcription seems to infer were used in places), a flute, and trumpets/timpani. Since the work in general has only two keys, E flat and G major, and the time in between these is sometimes restricted, it was decided to use two pairs of horns, each pair of which is pitched in these keys. This also allows for a greater sonority in the obvious tutti passages. The Hewitt overtures, on the other hand, provided a different set of difficulties. The earliest work, the New Federal Overture from 1796, of which only a piano transcription survives, was probably rather hastily composed after the success of the Carr overture in New York, and the political ruckus that followed—this involved a near riot when the work was not performed, resulting in an attack on Hewitt by a disgruntled member of the audience. Given this fact, it is logical that he did not have the time to gather together the numbers of extra musicians needed for the Carr, and therefore had to make do with his own professional group at the theatre. This meant an orchestra of pairs of clarinets, bassoons, and horns, in addition to the strings. The other surviving Hewitt string parts give clues as to how he treated the various instruments, thus making it a matter of scoring the wind instruments as tastefully and idiomatically as possible. For the Medley Overture, the appearance of the orchestral introduction of the Mozart Piano Concerto in D minor gives an indication that a flute, as well as trumpets/timpani, were added. As the string parts are note-for-note identical with their model, it was reasonable to conclude that the wind instruments were also, with Mozart’s original oboe parts being performed by the clarinets. In the New Medley Overture in C major, however, it seems clear from the string scoring that the orchestra had been expanded slightly. The idiomatic presence of trumpets and drums can be inferred from the surviving parts. In addition, the wind sonorities seem to require a pair of flutes, all of which have been added.

The purpose of the medley is to provide a compendium of popular tunes, sometimes with a political message, and therefore the concept of complete originality must be redefined. In the Reinagle overtures, all of which are two movements, the main emphasis is upon Scots-Irish folk-music, and one will recognize, as did audiences of that day, St Patrick’s Day or The Irish Washerwoman in the rollicking finales. Only in his Occasional Overture of 1794 did he express a musical political view; here one finds the English song The Plowboy contrasted with the French Revolutionary Ça ira, not to mention the ubiquitous American tune Yankee Doodle. Carr’s Federal Overture, on the other hand, uses the Marseillaise, in addition to La Carmagnole, contrasting these with less pugnacious English tunes and inserting “Oh dear, what can the matter be” in addition to the popular President’s March by Philip Phile (now known as The Itsy-bitsy Spider). Hewitt includes Scots reels, as well as the obligatory pieces noted above, but the appearance of the Mozart is a striking contrast to the simpler tunes, as if to introduce his audiences to a more ethereal music. In his final New Medley Overture he includes melodies from the new frontier, as well as Governor Jay’s March, indicating that the political ferment had run its course and the new nation was beginning its new manifest destiny.

The genres or style of music may not be seen in the same light as the more original symphonies of European composers, but these medleys served a unique purpose as political and sentimental statements of a new nation. It is hoped that these reconstructions, based upon and using the surviving parts, will allow the United States of America’s eighteenth-century symphonic legacy to be appreciated once more and take its rightful place in our musical heritage.

Bertil van Boer

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