Parlor Music: A Favoite Nineteenth Century Pasttime

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Rose Hill Mansion Music Room. Photo by Jeanne Gehret

Rose Hill Mansion Music Room. Photo by Jeanne Gehret

Recently I enjoyed a concert by Jacqueline Schwab, a celebrated pianist who has made several PBS documentaries with Ken Burns, among them Civil War and Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

In addition to experiencing the sheer musical delight of her playing, I was fascinated to hear the music that Anna and D.R. Anthony might have listened to and danced to. It is not hard to picture them engaged in such activities, since two of D.R.’s more violent encounters happened at the opera.

Early in the concert Jacqueline mentioned the term “parlor music,” and I was immediately transported to the nineteenth century. In the days before Facebook, she said, families often gathered together on an evening or Sunday afternoon in the parlor to spin stories, enjoy a nap, or make music together. Many illustrations of that era show families gathered around the piano, and the Rose Hill Mansion in nearby Geneva, New York has a whole room devoted to the harp and piano. (See photo above.)

Jacqueline entertained us with a variety of musical genres from the 1800s. There were the eminently singable songs of Stephen Foster such as Oh! Susannah, Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair, and Beautiful Dreamer. Written mostly in the 1850s, these songs have become so entrenched in American culture that my father sang Jeanie to me a century later.

Jacqueline also played dance tunes and described to us a dance known as the Gallop, where couples in ballroom position literally galloped from one end of the ballroom to the other—an exercise that so taxed those corseted ladies that they carried smelling salts to revive their fainting breath.

Nineteenth-century parlors frequently boasted a piano, including that of Anna’s family home in Martha’s Vineyard. Depending on whom you believe, her father the sea captain was the first householder to bring such a musical instrument to the island in the 1830s. Since he was the alderman at the Congregational Church around the corner, it’s also easy to imagine the Osborn parlor ringing with hymns of a Sunday afternoon, perhaps led by young Anna herself.

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