FOSTER: Foster for Brass
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Stephen FOSTER (1826-1864)
Nineteenth Century Brass Band Music based on the Songs of Stephen Foster
Race relations! Industrialization! Pop culture!Accelerating pace of change! While these could betopics shouted from the nightly news, they were issuesinitially confronted by American society during the lifeof the country's first great song-writer, Stephen CollinsFoster. In Foster's America the issue of slavery wasslowly wrenching the nation toward Civil War and theslow pace of agrarian life was giving way to theIndustrial Revolution and an exodus from countrysideto cities. The leisure time and disposable income of thegrowing middle class created the first stirrings of a\music industry" and this in turn made it possible for ayoung man such as Stephen Foster to consider apreviously unimaginable career, that of professionalsong-writer.
Though Foster can be considered the father ofAmerican popular music, his life was rather modest bythe frenzied standards of today's pop stars. Born on theUnited States' fiftieth birthday, 4th July, 1826, he spentthe greater part of his life in Western Pennsylvania andOhio, well away from the cultural and entertainmentcentres on the East coast, moving to New York onlywhen his career was already in decline. Known forcelebrating the Deep South, he travelled there onlyonce, and briefly, during his life.
From an early age music was one of the fewconstants in Foster's life. His entrepreneurial fathermade risky ventures in both politics and business, andthough middle class his large and musically inclinedfamily was in recurring financial distress. They losttheir beloved home the "White Cottage" in Foster'sinfancy and rarely had a settled home life after thattime. A childhood spent moving from place to placeconferred upon Foster a life-long sense of displacementand nostalgia, which would resonate with a nation of theuprooted immigrants and settlers pining for a peacefulhome and Arcadian past even as they bustled toward anurban and industrial future.
Foster's education was as uneven as his home life.
Largely self-taught in music, he received someguidance from family members and from Henry Kleber,one of the many fine German immigrant musicians whograced American cities during the nineteenth century.
His first known composition was written when he wasfourteen. His first published song Open Thy LatticeLove dates from his eighteenth year and is typical of theperiod's genteel parlour ballads appropriate for theyoung ladies and gentlemen of the bourgeoisie. His firstsuccess as a song-writer, however, came with a muchearthier style of music, the 'Ethiopian' or 'Plantation'songs associated with minstrel shows. The issue ofslavery had been left unresolved with the writing of theUnited States Constitution, and while abolished in theindustrial Northern states, it was pervasive in theagricultural South. Minstrel shows, in which whiteperformers darkened their faces with burnt cork andboth mocked and sentimentalised the enslaved African-American population, were a subconscious attempt on anational scale to expiate collective social guilt byreducing the humanity of slavery's victims. Theminstrel performers also began a long tradition ofwhites borrowing from indigenous black music, whichcontinued through jazz and rock-and-roll to the "whiterappers" of today.
While working as a bookkeeper in 1847 at hisbrother's shipping business in Cincinnati, Foster wrotehis first great success, the Ethiopian song Oh! Susanna.
Sold to the publisher W.C. Peters for a mere $100, thesong soon became a national craze and made Peters asmall fortune. Though Foster profited little monetarilyfrom the song it gave him the confidence to return toPittsburgh and begin his career as America's first fulltime song-writer. More minstrel hits soon followed,including the rambunctious Camptown Races. Thenostalgic Old Folks At Home or Swanee River, launcheda long tradition of longing-for-the-South songs, fromIrving Berlin's When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leavesfor Alabam', to Sweet Home Alabama made famous bythe country-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. ThoughFoster's traditional songs initially failed to achieve thesuccess of his minstrel numbers, he was gradually ableto reconcile the two threads of his work, wonderfullydescribed by his biographer Ken Emerson as 'possumfat and flowerets', into a single cohesive style.
The 1850s were productive for Foster and heachieved fame and relative financial success. In 1850 hemarried Jane (Jennie) McDowell and their only child,daughter Marion, was born in 1851. Foster, the formeraccountant, set up an innovative and profitablearrangement with the New York publishing house ofFirth, Pond & Co., which paid a royalty for each copy ofhis songs sold rather than the single purchase feestandard at that time. A similar set-up made IrvingBerlin a rich man decades later and might be one of thereasons Berlin kept a portrait of Foster on his officewall.
Foster composed prolifically making use of a widevariety of styles and subjects, including ballads andgenre and comic songs. Though part of the confusedpolitical middle ground regarding the abolition ofslavery (he composed campaign songs for the similarlyindecisive President James Buchanan whose brotherwas married to Foster's sister), he largely jettisonedcondescending dialect from his plantation songs, whichachieved a greater gentleness and humanity. Though thesentiments of many of these songs are questionable bytoday's standards, the great black abolitionist firebrandFrederick Douglas acknowledged at the time thatFoster's plantation songs '...awaken the sympathies forthe slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root andflourish'.
In 1860 Foster moved with his family to New YorkCity, but in a nation on the verge of a long and bloodyCivil War tastes were changing and Foster's popularitywas on the wane. Sales declined and he was often indebt both to his family and to his publisher foradvances. The relationship between the dreamy, poeticFoster and his pragmatic wife had always been difficultand Jennie and Marion soon went back to Pennsylvaniafor good. Everything, from his career to his personal lifeto his country itself, was coming apart. Alcoholism anddepression, possibly present in Foster's life before thistime, took hold and the remainder of his life was spentin increasing poverty and squalor, though he stillproduced a number of songs, both on his own and incollaboration with a young friend, George Cooper. LateFoster compositions include the Civil War songs WeAre Coming Father Abraam, When This Cruel War IsOver and the comic song My Wife Is A Most KnowingWoman.
In January 1864, Stephen Foster fell in his rentedroom and gashed his throat. His weakened constitutionprevented a recovery, and he died at New York'sBellevue Hospital at the age of 38. Though out offashion at his death, Foster's work was never forgotten.
His works have achieved the status of folk-song, andmany listeners are surprised to find that his songs havean actual composer at all, for it is hard to imagine a timethat they were not part of America's music.
In addition to touring troupes and performances onparlor pianos, much of Foster's music circulated duringhis lifetime in versions for brass bands. Adolphe Sax,best known today as the inventor of the saxophone, hadperfected "saxhorns" in the 1840s, a matched family ofconical bore brasses using the recently developed valvesystem, and their powerful yet sweet sound quicklycame to dominate public music throughout mid-19thcenturyAmerica. As an adventure in musical timetravel the sounds that listeners in Foster's time wouldhave heard are duplicated on this recording by a quintetof authentic period instruments. Their unique sound isstrikingly different from that of modern brasses.
Additionally, at a time