Mr. Jefferson's Music

Thomas Jefferson, whose spirited pursuit of excellence has few parallels in American history, regarded music as “a delightful recreation through life” and “this favorite passion of my soul.” Devoted to the violin - he practiced three hours a day - Jefferson studied under Williamsburg music teacher Francis Alberti.

By the time he enrolled in the College of William and Mary he had achieved a proficiency that brought regular invitations from royal governor Francis Fauquier to play chamber music in “the Palace.” His associates included harpsichordist Robert Carter of Nomini Hall, one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, and violinist and cellist John Tyler, later elected governor. Years afterward Jefferson recalled that at Fauquier’s dinner table “I have heard more good sense, more rational and philosophical conversation than in all my life besides.”

Jefferson paid Williamsburg druggist Dr. William Pasteur 5 for a violin in 1768, and the instrument was saved when Shadwell, the family home, burned two years later. John Randolph, attorney general of the colony, staunch royalist sympathizer, and the most able violinist in Williamsburg, sold Jefferson his fine violin for 13 before leaving for England at the outbreak of the Revolution. Many people have tried unsuccessfully to locate this possibly Italian instrument of excellent quality.

While home, as well as public music-making was often considered a male domain, Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton would not sit by as a listener, engaging perhaps in some domestic occupation. Indeed even before their marriage, music played its part in Jefferson’s courtship of his future wife. It was for Martha that Jefferson ordered a fortepiano from England - having written to his friend Thomas Adams in London from Monticello: “I have since seen a Forte-piano and am charmed with it. Send me this instrument then instead of the clavichord. Let the case be of fine mahogany, solid, not veneered.” They were wed January 1, 1772. She was 23, he 28.

Interned Hessian prisoners of war who visited Monticello were impressed with the skill of both husband and wife. Jefferson, who at this time practiced “three hours a day,” invited the capable Venetian violinist Francis Alberti to Monticello to give lessons. Additionally, his children would actively participate; Jefferson continually sought the best instructors for them. His daughter Martha, called Patsy, proved exceptionally talented and studied the harpsichord with John Bentley in Philadelphia and Claude Balbastre in Paris.

The large collection of music catalogued by Jefferson in 1783 indicates the range of compositions enjoyed by the family. Chamber music for strings and keyboard forms the largest part, and Corelli was known to have been Jefferson’s favorite composer. Also included are song collections, ballad operas, orchestral pieces, histories, theoretical works and tutors for the violin, harpsichord, flute, and the faddish “musical glasses”.


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