Most people see Thomas Jefferson as the third president of the United States, an author, a politician, a philosopher, a patriot, a thinker, and an architect. You may even know Jefferson as the founder of one of the great universities in our country. But did you realize that Thomas Jefferson was also an avid amateur musician? Thomas Jefferson was a true standout man!
“Do not neglect your music. It will be a companion that will sweeten you many hours of life.”
These are the words of Thomas Jefferson in 1790 in a letter he wrote to his wife, Martha.
Thomas Jefferson was an avid musician! What instrument did Jefferson play? The violin!
Born in 1743, when Jefferson entered the College of William and Mary in 1760, he already had a reputation as a highly accomplished violinist. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was so good with the violin that the royal governor of Virginia, Nomini Hall, regularly invited him to play at “the Palace.”
Jefferson’s graduation from college in 1762 and his entry into professional life did nothing to nullify his love of music. In 1768, Jefferson paid the Williamsburg apothecary, Dr. William Pasteur, the sum of five pounds to buy a violin. Tragedy struck only two years later when, in 1770, Jefferson’s home caught fire. Fortunately, the violin was one of the items that Jefferson managed to save from the fire.
Music was an integral part of Thomas Jefferson’s courtship with his future wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. The role of the violin was celebrated in the Broadway musical. 1776. When Benjamin Franklin and John Adams asked Martha what it was that attracted her and made her fall in love with her future husband, lyricist Sherman Edwards makes Martha sing:
“He plays the violin He tucks it just under his chin And he leans, oh, he leans Cause he knows, yes, he knows It’s hi-hi-hi-diddle diddle It’s my heart, Tom and his violin My strings are you loose hi hi hi I’m undone “
Thomas and Martha were married on January 1, 1772, and Jefferson sought to favor his new wife with the gift of a musical instrument. He wrote to Thomas Adams, a friend from London, requesting that Adams buy a harpsichord for Martha. Then Jefferson changed his mind. “Since then I have seen a Forte piano and I am delighted with it. Send me this instrument in place of the harpsichord. Make the case made of fine, solid mahogany, not veneered.” So Jefferson was a man who appreciated quality and valued innovation.
In his quest to improve his (and his wife’s) musical skills, Jefferson contacted prominent violinist / keyboardist Francis Alberti, persuading Alberti to move to Charlottesville to teach both Thomas and Martha. Both Jeffersons were diligent students, playing their lessons regularly. In fact, Thomas claimed that he practiced the violin “no less than three hours a day” for “a dozen years.”
As time passed, political tensions between England and its colonies increased (and Jefferson developed the reputation of an avid patriot), but in the area of music, Jefferson did not show any favoritism towards patriots or loyalists. John Randolph was the secretary general of Virginia. He was a determined realist sympathizer and associate of Jefferson and his family. Randolph was also known as the best violinist in the city of Williamsburg, Virginia. When Randolph left the Colonies to return to England at the outbreak of the Revolution, he sold his violin to Jefferson for £ 13.
For the rest of his life, Jefferson maintained the utmost respect for music and musicians. His slave, Isaac, indicated that his master possessed no less than three violins. He said Jefferson played the violin in the afternoon and sometimes after dinner. He also indicated that Martha continued to play the harpsichord and that music was frequently heard in the house.
Logically, chamber music for keyboard and strings makes up a large part of Jefferson’s collection of music that has survived. There are also collections of songs; theoretical studies; technical exercises for violin, harpsichord and flute; and works composed for the glass harmonica by Benjamin Franklin.
Was music an important part of Jefferson’s life? I’ll close with a quote from a letter to Robert Skipworth. When night comes, “we should talk about the lessons of the day, or lose them in Music, Chess or the joys of our family companions. The heart thus lightens, our pillows will be soft, and health and a long life will accompany the happy scene. “
Read more about Thomas Jefferson, the musician, at http://www.violinstudent.com/history/march/march4.html