Women Amateur Musicians in the Early American Republic

Glenda Goodman

Vernacular music-making was ubiquitous in early America: people labored to work-songs, spent their leisure hours singing and dancing sociably, and chanted hymns in church and at home. A change occurred in the years following the Revolution, as a class of dedicated amateurs emerged, their interest supported by growth in commercial music publishing and an uptick in education generally.[1] These white, middling and elite women and men acquired fashionable repertoire, often imported from Europe, trained their hands play an instrument confidently and correctly, and worked to make their voices controlled and mellifluous. Unpaid but far from casual, amateurs consciously reshaped the early national soundscape to be tasteful and euphonious. Many of these amateurs were women, and their musical activities have been lumped in with other decorative accomplishments. Yet music was not the same as embroidery, dance, French, or painting, and a closer look at amateurs sheds new light on the cultural construction of femininity.

Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic recognized the power of music to promote civility, empathy, calmness, and a highly cultivated sensibility—valued qualities all. But while the image of an elegant young American woman who could match the sophistication of her Old World counterparts held its appeal, to some in the late eighteenth century the idea of the American woman of leisure raised concerns about wastefulness and untenable aristocratic aspirations. In an era when transatlantic cultural ties were viewed with some ambivalence, the acquisition of outward signs of gentility tapped into fundamental questions about society in the newly established nation.[2] Where were class lines drawn, and based on what distinctions? Could the ongoing quest for an ever-rising standard of genteel living be conciliated with an ideal of a democratic society? Moreover, why should women’s education, justified on the premise that women were the primary educators of their young children and helpmeets to their spouses, include an inessential skill such as musical training? Properly educated women were meant to stand as a bulwark between U.S. citizens and decadent artificiality that supposedly rotted other nations, yet genteel music making, primarily used for domestic entertainment and courtship, smacked of pretentiousness. Musical accomplishment was seen as at best entertaining and at worst distracting, even dangerous. In the economy of accomplishments in which relatively elite women circulated, musical performances were heavily traded but not consistently valued.

Prescriptive literature illustrates the ambivalence toward music, which manifested especially as a fear of social climbing as a destabilizing trend, and uncertainty about the utility of musical training.[3] In an anonymous letter published in Philadelphia’s Lady’s Magazine and Repository of Entertaining Knowledge in August 1792, a critic excoriated a father who trained his daughters only in superficial accomplishments, thus saddling them with utterly unattainable social aspirations. Testifying that education should make women self-reliant in the face of life’s difficulties, the author asked, “How, then, have you, sir, enabled them to meet with the storm?” Rather than giving them useful skills, they were adorned with “ornamental” achievements that were suitable “only in the drawing room of a nobleman, or at the levee of a prince.” Shame, the author cried, attacking music and other frivolous activities that fostered fruitless ambition: “what do you expect for pretty beggars, whose accomplishments extend no farther than the harpsichord, the dancing room, or the card table?”[4]

The ubiquitous recriminations against accomplishments as wasteful and detrimental are well known.[5] Yet perhaps a more mundane, but highly consequential, aspect of amateur accomplishments underlies these debates. Pupils practicing on instruments or singing simply didn’t sound good. One can imagine the halting passages, wrong notes, false starts, missed leaps, and sheer tedium of repetition. A noisy and ill-tuned harpsichord in a small parlor would be a trial for the listeners’ nerves. The anonymous epistolist in the Lady’s Magazine claims the young women to which she refers “sing indifferently; they play the harpsichord indifferently.”[6] Poor training and lackluster performance was not a problem unique to America, of course. In a letter printed in the European Magazine and London Review, the Earl of Buchan denigrated the contemporary approach to education and complained, “Our women…are taught, with or without genius, to play on musical instruments,” implying there were some who were ill-equipped to excel.[7] Added to the pressure to appear accomplished (but not frivolously so), then, was the need to also sound good. Watchful observers sat with ears pricked, ready to judge.

Of course, there is a difference between prescriptions for correct behavior and lived experiences. Making music trains the mind and body: practicing entails building specific muscles so that precise motions can be executed reliably, and through careful listening problems with technique are discerned and corrected. The keyboard music popular in late eighteenth-century Europe and North America featured idiomatic passages full of scales, arpeggios, and repeating figures that lay easily in the hand, yet still required a considerable degree of precision and mental acuity to execute smoothly—a far cry from the ad hoc entertainments and communal hymn-singing that constituted most members of the previous generations’ primary musical outlets. The figure of a young woman sitting gracefully at a piano belies the coordination and concentration that came only with hours of work. A closer look at one amateur in particular allows us to ground the rules in experience, which also afford a chance to consider in greater detail the importance of skill and training for particular repertoire.

Catharine Akerly’s manuscript music book is one of hundreds of extant hand-copied volumes created by amateurs in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and serves as a window into early American musical life.[8] Catharine studied music and copied repertoire as a student at the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the 1790s. She married twice: first, briefly to a New York merchant, and after he died, to the Republican congressman Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill. Catharine had no children from either marriage. Living part of the year in Washington, D.C., in the Thomas Jefferson and James Madison administrations, she had ample time to read, write letters, attend to politics, and engage in the lively social life surrounding Dolley Madison. In such circles her musical acuity was a useful trait. Although she seems to have eschewed playing after she wed Mitchill, she maintained her musical interests. She continued to copy music in the early years of her marriages, and, once in Washington, commenting approvingly of the music she heard (including other women’s performances) in letters to her sister.[9] The manuscript music book she created leaves a record of an amateur with precise and fashionable musical tastes and no small degree of ability as a singer and keyboard player.

Akerly hailed from a well-off Long Island family whose ancestors emigrated from England in the seventeenth century. She was born in 1778, and by age thirteen her parents enrolled her at Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Moravian Seminary was held in high esteem—no less a figure than George Washington sought to send his grandnieces there, and he was not the only personage impressed by the seminary.[10] Soon after the seminary decided to open its doors to students from outside the Moravian congregation in 1785, well-to-do families began sending their daughters west, hoping they would benefit from a rigorous education in Bethlehem. Other schools for young women opened across the region in the first decades of the early national period, often offering specialized music lessons.[11]

Catharine Akerly found in Bethlehem a rich musical environment, with daily singing, instrumental lessons, and encouragement to copy music. With roots in a fifteenth-century Bohemian reform movement, the Moravian Church blossomed in the eighteenth-century with an evangelical fervor that brought missionary colonists as immigrants to America, where they founded Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1741. The pacifism and pietism that guided Moravians was coupled with a deeply held commitment to music, which permeated life at the seminary. Nearly every day included Die Singstunde (a period of hymn singing), and students were urged to copy music on their own. In 1792, the year Catharine arrived, the school acquired seven new forte pianos, as well as sheet music by European composers who were popular on both sides of the Atlantic.[12] Moravians believed in the equal intellectual capabilities of both genders, and in addition to providing a comparable education to both girls and boys (unusual in the period), seminary pupils were enabled to achieve high levels of music literacy and competency.[13]

Akerly began copying music into her manuscript book on December 19, 1792, likely drawing from the seminary’s library and borrowing music from schoolmates who hailed from Philadelphia and had access to the vast catalogue at the store of Benjamin Carr, the London-born composer and publisher who owned the most important music store in that city. Over the course of eight years she meticulously copied fifty-two pieces into a leather-bound book whose ninety 8-inch by 10-inch pages she covered in inked notes.[14] Catharine copied mostly British sentimental songs, which were enormously popular in the early United States. These songs featured simple, tuneful melodies that were easy to sing, generally set with one word per note and with few daring leaps or complicated melismas. An amateur with a modest degree of training could also handle the keyboard accompaniment, often little more than drumming a few notes in the left hand as a rudimentary bassline while reinforcing the vocal melody with the right hand.

“Queen Mary’s Lamentation,” found near the beginning of Akerly’s book, is an example of such a sentimental song. It was written by the English composer Anne Hunter, but when the sheet music was published in 1782 in London, it was attributed to Tommaso Giordani, an Italian-born composer in London. The song was well-liked, circulating widely in both Britain and the United States in manuscript and print. Its topic is Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic cousin of Queen Elizabeth, whose imprisonment and execution captivated writers and whose association with Scotland tapped into the eighteenth-century vogue for all things Highland and Lowland. In the song Mary is depicted as a pathetic figure immersed in the tragedy of her situation (rather than as a savvy player in cut-throat games of court politics). The lyrics, written in the in first person, allow the singer to generate sympathy for the subject, opening with, “I sigh and lament me in vain, these walls but echo my moan.” The musical style supports the lyrics’ sensibility. It is gentle, placid even, with no jarring harmonies or abrupt changes. Instead it proceeds calmly, in a stately triple meter with regular arcing phrases. With occasional twinges of minor on certain words (such as “alas”), the pathos of the topic is acknowledged then smoothed over. Scottish-style “snap” rhythms at the end of each phrase not only lend variety to the otherwise simple tune but also remind the listener of the queen’s setting. Like many (but not all) pop songs from later eras, “Queen Mary’s Lamentation” is pleasing to listen to and unchallenging in every way.

The song was well within Catharine Akerly’s reach as a performer, if the other repertoire she copied is any indication of her abilities. Yet to perform adequately and to perform well are two different matters. Flat expression killed feeling, but nuanced phrasing brought simple songs to life. Drawing out a certain note and clipping others, micro-adjustments to the dynamics and vibrato, and large-scale differences in interpretation across stanzas were all strategies for a musical performance that was stimulating rather than stultifying. Even when Catharine ceased to play, her musicality informed how she perceived those around her in Washington, D.C. “An exquisite band of music played at intervals martial, patriotic, & enlivening airs,” she wrote approvingly after attending President Jefferson’s New Year’s Day celebration in 1809.[15] Amateurs like Catharine Akerly had no wish to embarrass themselves, and to avoid humiliation one needed not only to hit all the notes, but to hit them tastefully.

Specific elements of performance style are inscrutable to us today. It is a commonplace that music and sound are ephemeral, particularly before the era of sound recording. Earlier music’s impression on the historical record exists chiefly as notated scores or as written accounts of performances; to translate these sources into something close to the music itself requires imagination. Yet aural imagination can be difficult to cultivate in a culture that is inordinately focused on the visual and textual rather than the sonic—traits exacerbated by the standards of scholarly training. Music literacy presents a further hurdle. It can be hard to know what to do with the inaudible and possibly illegible musical past. Like musical training, the analysis of repertoire demands a level of specialization that is not available to all and is not necessarily valued. Yet with it, we can reconstruct the specific skills amateurs needed to execute affecting performances.

The point of conjuring amateurs’ musical efforts is not because doing so is fun. Music can be enjoyable, but amateurs did not pursue it for pleasure only. Musical skills required time, resources, and interest to develop—hours of practicing, as well as a sensitive ear. Acquiring musical expertise was a form of labor, one not easily documented in economic terms (it was not until the Antebellum period that female music teachers became common). But in archives and libraries today there are stacks of printed sheet music and books of hand-copied music that make tangible amateurs’ interest making music. For these dedicated amateurs, music was not just a supplement to their lives; it was a complement, inextricable to how they experienced their worlds.


Glenda Goodman is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania and 2018-2019 Member at the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Historical Studies. Her first book, Cultivated by Hand: Materiality, Gender, and Amateur Musicians in the New American Republic, is forthcoming. Prior to her appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, she was an ACLS New Faculty Fellow in the History Department at the University of Southern California.


[1] T. H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present, (no. 119, 1988), 73–104; Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (2006).

[2] Kariann Akemi Yokota, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation (2011).

[3] Susanna Rowson, “Essay on Female Education,” in Mentoria, or The Young Lady’s Friend, vol. II (1794) 86–87. Emphasis is in the original.

[4] L.T. “To the Editors of the Ladies Magazine,” Lady’s Magazine and Repository of Entertaining Knowledge (1792) 120, 121.

[5] Richard Leppert, Music and Image: Domesticity, Ideology and Socio-Cultural Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (1988).

[6] L.T., “To the Editors of the Ladies Magazine,” 121.

[7] Letter from Earl of Buchan to Thomas Erskine, European Magazine and London Review (May 1782), 339.

[8] These manuscripts, and the social history of amateurs they reveal, is the subject of my forthcoming book, Cultivated by Hand: Materiality, Gender, and Amateur Musicians in the New American Republic. Akerly’s manuscript book is housed at the American Antiquarian Society and has also been digitized through the American Vernacular Music Manuscripts website: http://popmusic.mtsu.edu/manuscriptmusic/.

[9] Akerly’s letters can be found in the Catharine Akerly Cock Mitchill Papers at the Library of Congress.

[10] Donald M. McCorkle, The Moravian Contribution to American Music (1956) 5.

[11] Lucia McMahon, Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic (2012).

[12] Pauline M. Fox, “Reflections on Moravian Music: A Study of Two Collections of Manuscript Books in Pennsylvania, ca. 1800” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1997), 40-41.

[13] The composers were Franz Josef Haydn, Johann Baptist Vanhal, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, and Tommaso Giordani. Jewel A. Smith, Music, Women, and Pianos in Antebellum Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: The Moravian Young Ladies’ Seminary (2008).

[14] The first few pieces in the book appear to have been copied by a teacher in a more fluent hand, which was common practice for the period.

[15] Catharine Akerly Mitchill letter to Margaret Miller, Jan. 11, 1809 (Library of Congress).