Stephen Foster String Quartets!
by T. Matthew Phillips
“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 away!”
Stephen Foster, “Beautiful Dreamer” (1862)
Stephen Foster Bio
“Stephen Collins Foster was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1826, when it was a small town. On the day he was born, two great Americans died: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, second and third presidents of the United States. Stephen began to compose music in his early teens — his father wrote, when he was a youth, of “his strange talent for music” — but the great part of his composing was done between 1846 and 1864. He was only thirty-seven years old when he died.” [From Songs of Stephen Foster, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1946]
America’s First Songwriter
Stephen Foster was America’s first professional songwriter. Back in the mid-19th century, there was no music business as we know it today. Back then, working musicians earned a living as performers, e.g., restaurant singers, theater musicians, or concert recitalists, while composers hoped to earn a living selling sheet music.
The Music Biz
Back in the day, composers would peddle their songs to publishers — with the hopes that publishers would make an outright purchase. But most often, publishers would pay an up-front licensing fee — plus royalties at 5% to 10% of total sheet music sales. But this could be less than ideal for composers, like Stephen Foster, who had no way of knowing whether his sheet music was being pirated by other publishers (as it so often was!).
Foster earned no royalties when other musicians gave public performances of his songs; and, he earned no royalties when his melodies were arranged by others. Such was the music biz back in the day. Copyright law was in its infancy and there was no ASCAP to monitor public performances of composers’ works.
Not a Singer-Songwriter
Stephen Foster was not a singer-songwriter, like Joni Mitchell or James Taylor, i.e., he did not publicly perform his own music; as a result, Foster himself was not a celebrity. It’s often said that everybody recognizes his melodies, while few can actually identify Stephen Foster as the composer. Foster made no recordings of his music; sadly, he died 13 years before the invention of sound recording.
My Grandma and Her Ukulele!
My sprightly grandmother sang Stephen Foster tunes accompanied by her ukulele, (“OO-koo-LAY-lay”). A Kentucky native, she taught me: My Old Kentucky Home (1853), which of course is always played on the first Saturday in May — as they run for the roses — at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby! She also taught me Camptown Races (1850), made popular in a Bugs Bunny cartoon — with the popular refrain, “Doo-dah! Doo-dah!” as well as Oh! Susanna (1848), which was Stephen Foster’s first nationwide hit single!
It’s the Melodies!
Oh! Susanna was published in 1848; the following year, 1849, began the California Gold Rush — just as Oh! Susanna was going viral across the nation! The tune was immensely popular — so much so, that it became the unofficial anthem of the Forty-Niners who, as they made their way out West, invented all sorts of alternative lyrics — typically more coarse and risqué than the original! Stephen Foster melodies naturally lend themselves to freestyle lyric improvisation; indeed, aficionados cite the melodies as the essence of the Stephen Foster enchantment!
Traditional Folk Style
And while Stephen Foster composed the most elegant melodies, his accompaniments were always set in traditional folk-style — with simple chords. A typical Stephen Foster song contains maybe five chords — the same five, over ‘n over again! Truth is, back in those days, accompaniments were generally very simple because, after all, most 19th century musicians only knew like five chords in the first place!
The Minstrel Thing
Foster was a product of the society in which lived — a deeply segregated society — that found it entertaining for whites to sing and dance for other whites with their faces painted black. (I know, right? Awkward.) Though not intended by Foster, about 20 of his 200-or-so songs were regularly performed as minstrel songs — in “blackface.” But this was beyond his control and Foster received no royalties from any minstrel performance.
Stephen Foster – Abolitionist
Foster was a devout Abolitionist. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, had a profound effect on Foster and his song-writing. In fact, My Old Kentucky Home Good-Night!, published by Foster in 1853, was directly inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The song’s working title was: Poor Old Uncle Tom, Good-Night! Fellow Abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, wrote in his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, that Foster’s melody “awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish.”
Stephen Foster String Quartets
One day, I got the bright idea to arrange Stephen Foster for string quartet. I envisioned a high-res chamber ensemble — with more daring chord changes, more elaborate counterpoint, and more chromatic harmonies — à la Johannes Brahms! I wrote four arrangements: Old Folks at Home, (aka Swanee River, 1851), which is the official song of the State of Florida; Gentle Annie (1856); Beautiful Dreamer (1862), which may be his most famous melody; and My Old Kentucky Home (1853), which is the official song of the state of Kentucky. The string quartets were composed, produced, and realized on SmartMusic Finale software. Prospective licensees please enquire within. 🙂
T. Matthew Phillips, Esq.
Oct. 8, 2018
“Old Folks at Home” (aka “Swanee River,” 1851)
[running time 04:46]
“Gentle Annie” (1856)
[running time 04:08]
“Beautiful Dreamer” (1862)
[running time 05:45]
“My Old Kentucky Home” (1853)
[running time 04:51]
S.A.T.B. Score for two violins, viola, and cello (click below!):
Stephen Foster String Quartets!
by T. Matthew Phillips, Esq.
Produced and Directed by TMP’s Midnight Minions
in association with Chapter Eleven Productions,
Fly-By-Night Management Services, and
Neurotica Entertainment Group
“I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.”