Thomas Jefferson declared that music "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." To improve the state of music in America, Jefferson encouraged its practice, and music played an important role in the life of his family through the generations.
Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson
Jefferson played violin -- and less frequently, cello -- throughout his life. He claimed that as a youth, he practiced three hours a day, and he played well enough to participate in weekly concerts at the Governor's Palace while a student in Williamsburg. Jefferson purchased several violins, including a portable one he took on his travels.
Jefferson shared a love of music with his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, for whom he purchased a pianoforte during their engagement. In his 1858 biography of Jefferson, Henry S. Randall reported the family story of how music sealed their courtship:
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!
This love of music was passed through the generations. Jefferson advised his daughter, "Do not neglect your music. It will be a companion which will sweeten many hours of life to you." While in France, he purchased a Kirkman harpsichord, one of the finest instruments of its time, for his daughter Martha. Pleased with the quality, he later ordered another for his daughter Maria, for whom he also acquired a guitar.
Similarly, Jefferson's granddaughter Virginia Randolph Trist remembered his gift of a guitar:
"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 by Mrs. -- 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 shall never forget my ecstasies. I was but fourteen years old, and the first wish of my heart was unexpectedly gratified. "
Jefferson's Taste in Music
Jefferson's taste in music was diverse. He had a profound respect for the work of Haydn, and professed to envy both the Italians and the French their music. But he also held a large collection of American music, and his granddaughter Ellen Wayles Coolidge, whose second-floor bedchamber was directly over Jefferson's, often heard him "humming old tunes, generally Scotch songs but sometimes Italian airs or hymns." Monticello slave Isaac Jefferson recalled that Jefferson was "always singing when ridin' or walkin'," and according to plantation overseer Edmund Bacon, "he was nearly always humming some tune, or singing in a low tone to himself."