Tuesday, August 10, 2010

At the Piano

In 1803, Rebecca wrote a friend, "At this late day we are learning music." Since the study of a musical instrument was usually part of a girl's ornamental education, it was indeed late for the three Gratz sisters, in their twenties, to be taking it up. Perhaps Miriam Gratz did not think that her daughters had the talent and interest to warrant the expense when they were younger. As young women, the sisters might have seemed more likely to apply themselves to their study and make up in serious efforts what they lacked in talent. Everyone seems to have been fairly realistic about the outcome: Rebecca thought that the music would be "at least amusement for ourselves."

She does not say what musical instrument they were studying in this letter, but within a few months the piano is mentioned. Why the piano? They could have taken lessons in the guitar, the harp or one of the other keyboard instruments then in use.

Their choice may have had to do with the fact that a local piano maker, John Isaac Hawkins, had produced a greatly improved upright piano in 1800. With a sound more expressive than other keyboard instruments and a size and shape which fit easily into a parlor, Hawkins' piano had both musical and practical attractions.

How did the lessons go? In April 1804 Rebecca wrote to Rachel who was visiting their sister Fanny in Baltimore:

"This morning unharmonious chords of my piano out of tune and a new
sonata have sent me so out of humour with music that if it 'be the food
of love,' I would rather starve than touch a morsel more today."

Attempting a sonata six months into your study of the piano would be hard work for anyone not overly talented. Perhaps Rebecca was trying to play one of Alexander Reinagle's "Philadelphia Sonatas" for the piano, published in the city in 1800. Reinagle, an English immigrant, had been a kind of unofficial composer for President Washington's administration. He also wrote an instruction book for keyboard instruments which the Gratz sisters may have used.

In any case, this is the last mention which Rebecca makes of playing the piano. Her sister Sarah has left no record of her musical endeavors at all. This does not mean that they stopped playing, just that their playing was not worthy of mention; it was indeed something to amuse themselves. Only Rachel proved a serious student: in 1807, for instance, Sarah writes that her younger sister "is quite well this morning and at the piano as usual."

(The first letter is from the Verplanck Collection at the New York Historical Society. The others are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

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