Violins

Music played an important role throughout Thomas Jefferson’s life, from the time he began taking violin lessons as a young boy through his old age, and particularly in his courtship of Martha Skelton. According to Jefferson family oral tradition as recorded by Jefferson’s biographer Henry S. Randall,

“Two of Mr. Jefferson's rivals happened to meet on Mrs. Skelton's door-stone. They were shown into a room from which they heard her harpsichord and voice, accompanied by Mr. Jefferson's violin and voice, in the passages of a touching song. They listened for a stanza or two. Whether something in the words, or in the tones of the singers appeared suggestive to them, tradition does not say, but it does aver that they took their hats and retired, to return no more on the same errand!”[1]

Thomas Jefferson and Martha Skelton were wed the first of January, 1772.

During his lifetime, Jefferson is thought to have possessed a minimum of three violins. In May of 1768, his pocket account books show that he acquired an instrument possibly crafted in Cremona,[2] and this violin remained in his possession until his death.[3]  Although the make of this violin is uncertain, some sources suggest that it may have been an instrument of the school of Niccolo Amati, in which case it would have been very valuable indeed. Family lore claims that this violin was nearly consumed in the Shadwell fire of 1770, but saved by a faithful slave,[4] indicating that the Cremona violin was of considerable value to Jefferson.

Correspondence with his cousin John Randolph of Williamsburg in 1771 shows an agreement between the two about a violin that Randolph had bought, and that Jefferson coveted. A bargain was reached in which Jefferson was to receive the violin upon Randolph's death. In exchange, Randolph would receive 100 pounds' worth of Jefferson's books if Jefferson were the first to die.[5] Instead, however, Randolph dissolved the agreement and delivered the violin to Jefferson upon his departure for England in 1775.[6] The violin's appearance and quality are unknown, but in his letters, Jefferson takes care to direct Randolph to wrap the violin in "some bays or other coarse linen" and then to "pack her securely in a wooden box."[7]

A third violin, purchased in Paris in 1786, was not full-sized, but instead a "dancing master's violin" or "pocket viol" which could be transported easily.[8] Jefferson may later have given this “portable fiddle” to a student at the University of Virginia, who complained that its tones were “none of the best.”[9] Pictures of similar models show that his viol probably consisted of a fingerboard, bridge, and peg box, without the body of a standard violin. And although Jefferson broke and permanently damaged his right wrist in 1786, he continued to purchase strings and have his bows repaired until the early 1790s.[10]

Upon Jefferson's death, most of his belongings were auctioned to pay his enormous debt, including at least two of his violins, of which he is supposed to have said "would fetch in London any price."[11] These violins were sent by Nicholas P. Trist from Monticello to Joseph Coolidge in Boston, where a "celebrated performer" would examine them. At this point they had no strings and their bridges were broken, but Coolidge reported this to be "of little consequence."[12] In October of 1828, the violins were taken to England by a friend of Coolidge’s; he hoped to "get 100 to 150 guineas for the Cremona in London."[13] It is unclear what became of the violins after that; to this day, their location remains a mystery.

Almost as mysterious as the whereabouts of his violins is the nature of Jefferson's competence as a violinist. While some biographers claim that he was "one of the best violinists of his day,"[14] and achieved a "serious mastery of the violin,"[15] some of his relatives declare that Thomas Jefferson never accomplished much more than a "gentlemanly proficiency," (although in 1853, his granddaughter Ellen Coolidge said he had a "singularly correct ear" and a "great natural disposition for [music].").[16] Since contemporary sources disagree on the level of Jefferson's musical talent, we must infer his proficiency based on other clues.

The first of these is the number and difficulty of the works Jefferson amassed and cataloged in 1783. These works included concertos, sonatas, operas, duets, etc. from composers like Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Pugnani, Boccherini, and more. Surprisingly, there are no works by Mozart in Jefferson’s library.[17]  Upon closer examination, it can be seen that many of the pieces require advanced bowings and left-hand techniques (such as double-stops, staccato, martelé, sautillé, and more). The music of Jefferson’s favorite composer, Arcangelo Corelli, calls for various trills, turns, arpeggios, and left-hand shifts. Still more demanding than Corelli is Geminiani, whose sonatas require “no small measure of virtuosity from the performer.”[18]  Thomas Jefferson’s music catalog lists so many pieces, primarily for the violin, and because so many of these are opuses considered challenging even by professional violinists, it is clear that Jefferson must have been at least a very talented amateur.

Another source is Jefferson's technique book, The Art of Playing the Violin by Francesco Geminiani (1680-1762), which is annotated in Jefferson's hand. One annotation quotes almost verbatim an English music historian named Charles Burney: "the Beat upon the unison, octave, or any consonant sound to a note on the violin, which so well supplies the place of the Close-Shake...."[19]  This quote evidences Jefferson's interest in technique, in this case left-hand vibrato, which only a fairly advanced violinist would master.

Thirdly, we know that, as a young student of the law in Williamsburg, Jefferson played together with Governor Fauquier and others in weekly concerts and that later, at Monticello, Jefferson was often praised for his skill by his guests.[20] According to Jefferson himself, there were "at least a dozen years of [Jefferson's] life" during which he "played no less than three hours a day."[21] That can be calculated to be at least 13,140 hours of practice, which would probably indicate quite a bit more than a mere "gentlemanly proficiency." Naturally, we cannot rule out some exaggeration on the part of the master of Monticello; but even so, the tally remains impressive.        

How important was the violin and music in general to Jefferson? Important enough that he devoted thousands of hours to the study of it, insisted that all his daughters and granddaughters learn and practice it, secured a tutor from Italy (Francis Alberti) to teach it, and wrote letters concerning its improvement in the states. In an epistle to Giovanni Fabbroni, a young Italian friend of Jefferson’s, he names music the "favorite passion of [his] soul." This statement is the more impressive given the famously vast scope of Jefferson's interests. In the same letter, Jefferson expresses a grave concern about the tradition of classical music in the New World; he felt that it had descended into a "state of deplorable barbarism".[22]  In a much later letter to Nathaniel Burwell discussing the education of females, Jefferson wrote that music was “invaluable,” and that it "furnishes a delightful recreation for the hours of respite from the cares of the day, and lasts us through life."[23] 

The disappearance of Thomas Jefferson’s violins, especially the possible Amati, is a great loss to Jefferson scholars. No records whatever exist detailing the violins’ fate after their journey to London. However, the hope that one or more of Jefferson’s violins will someday be identified is not entirely unfounded. The longevity of great violins can be much greater than 200 years. Indeed, many candidates have been presented, though a conclusive, documented connection has yet to be made. Perhaps Jefferson’s violins will one day find their way into historians’ hands.

- Claudia Elzey, May 3, 2011

Primary Sources References

1763 January 20.  (Jefferson to John Page).  "I shall visit particularly England Holland France Spain Italy (where I would buy me a good fiddle) and Egypt and return through the British provinces to the northward home."[24]

1768 February 11. "Recd. of Charles Hudson for fiddlestrings 7/6."[25]

1768 May 25.  "Pd. Doctr. Pasteur for violin £5."[26]

1768 October 4. "Pd. at Hornsby's for fiddlestrings 3/."[27]

1768 October 13. "Pd. at Hornsby's for fiddlestrings 2/3."[28]

1769 August 10. "Pd. Richards for fiddlestrings 3/."[29]

1770 June 23. "Pd. Hornsby for fiddlestrings 1/3."[30]

1770 June 24. "Pd. for fiddlestring 7 ½d."[31]

1770 October 8. "Pd. at Hornsby's for fiddlestring 1/10½."[32]

1771 April 11.  “It is agreed between John Randolph, Esq., of the City of Williamsburg, and Thomas Jefferson, of the County of Albemarle, that in case the said John shall survive the said Thomas, that the Executors or Administrators of the said Thomas shall deliver to the said John 100 pounds sterling of the books of the said Thomas, to be chosen by the said John, or if not books sufficient, the deficiency to be made up in money: And in case the said Thomas should survive the said John, that the Executors of the said John shall deliver to the said Thomas the violin which the said John brought with him into Virginia, together with all his music composed for the violin, or in lieu thereof, if destroyed by any accident, 60 pounds sterling worth of books of the said John, to be chosen by the said Thomas.”[33]

1771 July 15. "Pd. at Printg. office for fiddle strings 3/1½."[34]

1771 July 15. "Pd. at Hornsby's for do. 3/9."[35]

1775 July 28. "Pd. Hillegas for violin strings 21/3."[36]

1775 August 17. “Delivered to Carter Braxton an order on the Treasurer [Robert Carter Nicholas] in favor of J. Randolph Atty. General for £13. the purchase money for his violin. This dissolves our bargain recorded in the Gen. ct. & revokes a legacy of £100. sterling to him now standing in my will which was made in consequence of that bargain.”[37]

1775 August 25. (Jefferson to John Randolph). “I received your message by Mr. Braxton and immediately gave him an order on the Treasurer for the money, which the Treasurer assured me should be answered on his return. I now send the bearer for the violin and such musick appurtaining to her as may be of no use to the young ladies. I beleive you had no case to her. If so, be so good as to direct Watt Lenox to get from Prentis’s some bays or other coarse woollen to wrap her in, and then to pack her securely in a wooden box.”[38]

1776 May 24. "Pd. Hillegas for fiddle strings 27/."[39]

1783 November 20. "Pd. for pocket book 12/6 -- mendg. violin 2/6."[40]

1784 November 30. "pd. for fiddle strings 7f4."[41]

1788 August 15. "Pd. for a small violin 36lt."[42]

1792 July 13. "Pd. for fiddle strings .97."[43]

1793 December 24. "Pd. for violin strings 2.06."[44]

1826 March 22. (Nicholas Philip Trist). "Mr. Jefferson said...At first I carried about with me that little instrument which I've given to [Meriwether] Lewis [Randolph]...I have two [violins] that would fetch in London any price-one a violin of Sir John Randolph's, the other a Cremona more than a hundred years old."[45]

1828 May 14. (Joseph Coolidge to Nicholas Trist). “…They are not stringed; and the bridges are broken; but this I suppose is of little consequence: when I know his opinion I shall write to you.”[46]

1828 August 7. (Joseph Coolidge to Martha Jefferson Randolph). “My friend Wormely goes to England on the 1. October, he takes the violins—and thus saves freight, duty, and commissions; I hope to get 100 to 150 guineas for the Cremona in London.”[47]

Further Sources

Footnotes

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