Monday, June 15, 2015

American Songs of Stephen Foster

The emergence of commercial popular music in the United States coincided with the rise of the literate middle class and the transition from rural to urban communities. Its success resulted from an increase in income and time for leisurely activities, which many Americans of the middle and upper classes enjoyed during the nineteenth century. In terms of musical style, English, Italian, Scottish, and Irish melodies influenced many American popular songs.

Americans began viewing musical literacy as a desirable trait during the early nineteenth century. Many women studied music at private schools or “seminaries” in order to appear accomplished. Around the same time, piano manufacturing increased, and many middle-class Americans could now afford to have one in their home. The rise of musical literacy and piano production directly benefited Stephen Foster as many of his songs became quite popular in parlor settings.

American music scholars credit Stephen Foster as being the first American composer to make a living solely from writing popular songs. Many of Foster’s songs gained popularity during his lifetime because they reflected the spirit of the age in which he lived. During the early nineteenth century, many Americans moved to the large industrial cities and left the rural farmland behind. An unintended consequence of this mass urbanization was the increased spread of disease (such as cholera), which led to the premature loss of loved ones and touched the lives of many American families. Though excitement existed for the burgeoning urban centers, some Americans longed for the simple past: a past that in their minds, could be connected with their idealized lives in rural environments. Poetry and literary sources from this period in American history reify these sentiments.

Below you can listen to a parlor song written near the end of Foster’s life. He certainly had a way of writing music that not only resonated with his contemporaries but would have a lasting effect on generations to come.

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world heard in the day,
Lull'd by the moonlight have all pass'd a way!

Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,
List while I woo thee with soft melody;
Gone are the cares of life's busy throng,—
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer awake unto me!

Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea
Mermaids are chaunting the wild lorelie;
Over the streamlet vapors are borne,
Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn.

Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart,
E'en as the morn on the streamlet and sea;
Then will all clouds of sorrow depart,—
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

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