Kyle Chattleton looks at the ways enslaved people at plantations across the United States used music and at the foundational role they played in creating a distinctly American musical tradition.
Music was an important part of daily and family life for the Jefferson and Randolph families at Monticello. In this episode, Monticello Guide Kyle Chattleton discusses the different instruments you could find throughout the house then, the many musical manuscripts owned by Thomas Jefferson, and what kinds of music the family enjoyed performing for themselves and one another.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
One of our earliest episodes of Mountaintop History focuses on the music of Monticello’s enslaved community. It covers the artistry of violin players Eston, Beverly, and Madison Hemings, as well as the history and legacy of African American music in the United States. The podcast was published in February 2021, if you’re looking to take a listen.
On today’s episode, we’ll be exploring the music and musicians of the Jefferson and Randolph families.
Thomas Jefferson once said that “music is the favorite passion of my soul,” and we know that the Monticello home was often filled with musical sounds. In particular, Jefferson seemed to be quite fond of classical music. In 1783, Jefferson made a catalog of his library collection, and in it he listed sheet music and music theory texts. He owned copies of Arcangelo Corelli’s and Antonio Vivaldi’s concerti, selections from The Beggar’s Opera, a set of six string trios by Felice Giardini, and John Holden’s Essay Towards a Rational System of Music, among many other manuscripts.
Thomas Jefferson was principally a violinist. He owned a few violins throughout his life, including what was called a “kit,” which was a small violin you could fit in a coat pocket. Perhaps this “kit” was the same instrument Jefferson used to impress his future wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. In 1858, Jefferson biographer Henry Randall wrote about the married couple’s musical courtship, which involved an appearance by two other rivals also eager to court Mrs. Skelton:
“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!”
In other words, the music that these two rivals heard, suggested that they couldn’t compete against Jefferson.
Martha Jefferson was a talented harpsichord player, and her love of music was handed down to her daughters and granddaughters. Her eldest, Martha Jefferson Randolph, could also play keyboard instruments, and she was regularly encouraged to practice. In a letter from her father from 1790, for example, Thomas Jefferson writes to his seventeen year old daughter, “Do not neglect your music. It will be a companion which will sweeten many hours of life to you.”
There were also guitars at Monticello. One was a gift from Jefferson to his granddaughter, Virginia Randolph Trist. In 1839, she recalled the moment she was given an English guitar from her grandfather:
“I had for a long time a great desire to have a guitar. A lady of our neighborhood was going to the West and wished to part with her guitar, but she asked so high a price that I never in my dreams aspired to its possession. One morning on going down to breakfast, I saw the guitar. It had been sent up my Mrs. [Sthreshly] for us to look at, and grandpapa told me that if I would promise to learn to play on it I should have it. I never shall forget my ecstasies. I was but fourteen years old and the first wish of my heart was unexpectedly gratified.”
While it would seem that classical music was regularly performed in the Monticello home, there were other genres that filled the household. Another granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, wrote in 1853 about her grandfather’s musical tastes:
“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. This was I think between whiles, in the intervals of his occupations.”
Music then, for the Jeffersons, was a way to pass time throughout the day. It was used to entertain and also marked family bonds. Music additionally came with expectations, namely lots of practicing, which led to a home filled with talented artists. It was for most of them, it seems, a favorite passion of their souls.
Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: This episode of Mountaintop History was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.