Quotations on Music

Isaac Granger Jefferson, Monticello slave: "He kept three fiddles; played in the afternoons and sometimes after supper. This was in his early time. When he begin to git so old, he didn't play . . . . Mr. Jefferson always singing when ridin' or walkin'; hardly see him anywhere outdoors but what he was a-singin'. Had a fine clear voice; sung minnits and sich; fiddled in the parlor."[1]

Edmund Bacon, Monticello overseer: "I have rode over the plantation, I reckon, a thousand times with Mr. Jefferson, and when he was not talking he was nearly always humming some tune, or singing in a low tone to himself."[2]

Ellen W. Coolidge, Jefferson's granddaughter: "Mr. Jefferson had a most decided taste for music and great natural dispositions for it. His ear was singularly correct and his voice, though he never sang except in the retirement of his own rooms, was sweet and clear and continued unbroken to a very late period of his life. My chamber at Monticello was over his, and I used not unfrequently to hear him humming old tunes, generally Scotch songs but sometimes Italian airs or hymns."[3]

Maria Cosway, friend in Paris: "I would Serve you and help you at dinner, and divert your pain after dinner by good Musik." Note: Jefferson had just broken his wrist.[4]

Jefferson Quotations

1771 August 3. (to Robert Skipwirth) "There 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."[5]

1778 June 8. (to Giovanni Fabbroni) "If there is a gratification which I envy any people in this world it is to your country [Italy] its music. This is the favorite passion of my soul, and fortune has cast my lot in a country where it is in a state of deplorable barbarism . . . . 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 . . . . In a country where, like yours, music is cultivated and practised by every class of men I suppose there might be found persons of those trades [gardener, weaver, cabinetmaker, stonecutter] 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, and hautboys and a bassoon, without enlarging their domest[ic] expenses." Asks Fabbroni's aid in procuring such a band of musical artisans.[6]

c.1781. (Notes on the State of Virginia) "In music they [blacks] are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved."[7]

1785 September 30. (to Charles Bellini) "Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their [the French] architecture, sculpture, painting, music, I should want words. It is in these arts they shine. The last of them particularly is an enjoiment, 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, and which in spight of all the authority of the decalogue I do covet."[8]

1787 March 28. (to Martha Jefferson Randolph) "Music, drawing, books, invention and exercise will be so many resources to you against ennui."[9]

1790 April 4. (to Martha Jefferson Randolph) "Do not neglect your music. It will be a companion which will sweeten many hours of life to you."[10]

1818 March 14. (to Nathaniel Burwell) "The ornaments too, and the amusements of life, are entitled to their portion of attention. These, for a female, are dancing, drawing, and music. . . . Music is invaluable where a person has an ear. Where they have not, it should not be attempted. It furnishes a delightful recreation for the hours of respite from the cares of the day, and lasts us through life. The taste of this country, too, calls for this accomplishment more strongly than for either of the others."[11]


  1. James A. Bear, Jr. Jefferson at Monticello, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1967), 13.
  2. Ibid, 83.
  3. Ellen Coolidge letterbook, University of Virginia. http://www.lib.virginia.edu/small/
  4. L&B, 10:394.
  5. PTJ, 1:78.
  6. Ibid, 2:196.
  7. Notes, 140.
  8. PTJ, 8:569.
  9. Ibid, 11:251.
  10. Ibid, 16: 300.
  11. Ford, 12:92.

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