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Thomas Jefferson – A True Man of Note
Most people see Thomas Jefferson as the third President of the United States, an author, a politician, a philosopher, a patriot, a thinker, and an architect. You may know even know Jefferson as the founder of one of our country’s great universities. But did you realize that Thomas Jefferson was also an avid amateur musician? Thomas Jefferson was a true Man of Note!
“Do not neglect your music. It will be a companion which will sweeten many hours of life to you.”
These are the words of Thomas Jefferson in 1790 in a letter he wrote to his wife, Martha.
Thomas Jefferson was an avid musician! What instrument did Jefferson play? The violin!
Born in 1743, by the time Jefferson entered the College of William and Mary in 1760 he already had a reputation as a very accomplished violinist. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was so good on the violin that he was regularly invited to play in “the Palace” by Virginia’s Royal Governor, Nomini Hall.
Jefferson’s graduation from college in 1762 and his entry into professional life did nothing to quash his love of music. In 1768 Jefferson paid Williamsburg druggist Dr. William Pasteur the sum of £5 to purchase a violin. Tragedy struck just two years later when, in 1770, Jefferson’s house burned. Fortunately, the violin was one of the items which was Jefferson managed to save from the fire.
Music was an integral part of Thomas Jefferson’s courtship of his future wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. The violin’s role was celebrated in the Broadway Musical 1776. When Benjamin Franklin and John Adams asked Martha what it was that so attracted her and caused her to fall in love with her future husband, lyricist Sherman Edwards has Martha sing:
“He plays the violin He tucks it right under his chin And he bows, oh he bows For he knows, yes he knows That it’s hi-hi-hi-diddle diddle It’s my heart, Tom and his fiddle My strings are unstrung Hi-hi-hi-hi I am undone”
Thomas and Martha were married January 1, 1772, and Jefferson sought to favor his new wife with the gift of a musical instrument. He wrote to Thomas Adams, a London friend, requesting that Adams purchase a clavichord for Martha. Then Jefferson changed his mind. “I have since seen a Forte-piano and am charmed with it. Send me this instrument then instead of the clavichord. Let the case be of fine mahogany, solid, not veneered.” So Jefferson was a man who appreciated quality and valued innovation.
In his quest to improve his musical skills (and those of his wife)Jefferson contacted noted violinist / keyboardist Francis Alberti, persuading Alberti to relocate to Charlottesville to give lessons to both Thomas and Martha. Both Jeffersons were diligent students, playing their lessons regularly, In fact, Thomas stated that he practiced violin “no less than three hours a day” for “a dozen years.”
As time passed, political tensions between England and her colonies mounted (and Jefferson developed the reputation of an avid Patriot), but in the area of music Jefferson showed no favoritism to patriot or loyalist. John Randolph was the Secretary General of Virginia. He was a resolute Royalist sympathizer, and an associate of Jefferson and his family. Randolph was also known as the finest violinist in the city of Williamsburg, Virginia. When Randolph left the Colonies to return to England at the outbreak of the Revolution, he sold his violin to Jefferson for £13.
Throughout the rest of his life, Jefferson maintained the highest regard for music and musicians. His slave, Isaac, indicated that his master owned no less than three fiddles. He said that Jefferson played the violin in the afternoon, and at times after supper. He also indicated that Martha continued playing the harpsichord, and that music was frequently heard in the household.
Logically, chamber music for keyboard and strings makes up a large part of Jefferson’s music collection that has survived. There are also collections of songs; theoretical studies; technical exercises for the violin, harpsichord and flute; and works composed for Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica.
Was music an important part of Jefferson’s life? I’ll end with a quote from a letter to Robert Skipworth. When evening came, “we should talk over the lessons of the day, or lose them in Musick, Chess, or the merriments of our family companions. The heart thus lightened, our pillows would be soft, and health and long life would attend the happy scene.”
Read more about Thomas Jefferson, the musician, at http://www.violinstudent.com/history/march/march4.html
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