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Lawrenceville: Stephen Collins Foster

Portrait photograph of Stephen Foster.

Stephen Foster

An Address by John Tasker Howard. Made at the Annual Stephen Foster Memorial Program in Carnegie Music Hall on 13 January 1934 from The Pittsburgh Record, March 1934.

This meeting commemorates a sad occasion, a tragic event--the passing, seventy years ago, of one who left us a legacy of song and melody that may never be forgotten. Stephen Foster was a man who had but a few pennies to leave in this world, but those things he had created added to the spiritual riches of the world a heritage far more precious than the millions of many an industrial or financial giant.

To America Foster has meant much. His songs are so native in their character that there need be no hesitation in stating that his was the most national expression that any of our composers has yet achieved. Born and raised here in Pittsburgh, he was little affected by the foreign music that enslaved those who lived on the seaboard. The voices Stephen heard were those of the minstrel shows, the singing and dancing of negroes on the wharves of the Ohio River, and the sentimental songs of midcentury that were carried through the country by the 'singing families' in concert and that were sung by demure young ladies who played the accompaniments on square pianos covered with brocade and lace.

Although the minstrel shows provided an influence that affected Foster profoundly, they were also a medium that he himself completely reformed. He found the songs to be crude, vulgar ditties that struck the popular fancy, but they were nevertheless lyrics and songs that in spite of their vulgarity represented something definitely American. Stephen Foster made of this class of music a literature that is well worth preserving; he brought artistry and sincerity to a medium that before his entry had reeked of the alley and the barroom.

Before Foster's time there had been American composers. Francis Hopkinson, starting with his first song in 1759, had composed songs that were a charming reflection of the works of Arne and other English composers then in vogue. Lowell Mason published in 1822 his first collection of hymn-tunes. Mason did succeed in reviving the spirit of early New England psalmody, but his tunes were definitely patterned after German models. Louis Moreau Gottschalk caught something of the color of his native New Orleans, but his music was shaped with an elegance that came from the salons of Paris, where he had his training.

Stephen Foster was definitely of America, both in his life and in his music. His joyous songs are full of the spirit of pioneers, full of the care-free impertinence that snaps its fingers at fate and the universe. His songs of home tell of a love that is common to all Americans--the love of their own homes. Unconsciously, and without any objective attempt, Stephen Foster reflected the subtle traits that make the American temperament; and the fact that this achievement was unconscious, unplanned, renders his music far more authentically American than that of our modern composers who use a commercialized jazz to tell of skyscrapers, subways, and riveting machines.

But it is not alone because he is typically American that Stephen Foster is important. The achievement of nationalism is, after all, a somewhat narrow and provincial matter. I believe it may be said advisedly and with mature judgment that Stephen Foster has made the most important contribution to the music of the world that has yet come from America. Such a statement may be made with full realization of the fact that Foster was untrained, that as a musician he was woefully lacking in the ability to develop his ideas with craftsmanship or even with correctness. We may admit, too, that symphonic compositions, operas, and choral works of importance and significance have been written by American musicians, works that are far more musicianly than any of the humble efforts of Stephen Foster. Yet in the realm of what we may term concert music, America has produced as yet no world master, none who may rank with Bach, Beethoven or Wagner. The best of our American symphonic composers must still be content to take their places with the lesser tone-poets of the world.

In the field in which Stephen Foster worked, through the medium of folk or peoples' songs, he stands supreme in the song literature of the entire world. Henry Bishop composed the music to Home, Sweet Home; Henry Carey left us Sally in Our Alley and the music for God Save the King, our own America; and dozens of composers are known today for one or two songs that have proved immortal. Which of them, in the field of songs that everyone can sing, has left us at least a dozen songs that are daily bread and musical nourishment in homes throughout the world? And if it be important to leave a message that may be understood by high and low, that gives expression to the emotions of human beings in all walks of life, then Stephen Foster is indeed the greatest of American composers, one whose like has not been produced elsewhere in the world.

We have very recently heard it charged that Stephen Foster was a 'mere thumper of chords on the guitar or banjo' and that his melodies are but slight variations of older melodies. Of late it has become a kind of sport to make comparisons of tunes and to look for the ancestors of our favorite melodies. We are prone to forget that there is scarcely a phrase of music that does not have its parallel elsewhere. Whenever a plagiarism suit is brought into court, the defense invariably shows that the complainant himself stole his music from a still earlier piece. Foster, like all other composers, was influenced by the songs he heard in his youth and manhood, but to all his best works he brought something of his own individuality, and he remolded the things he heard unti they came forth as something undeniably his, fresh and original. This is by no means the first time that Pittsburgh newspapers have been filled with statements that Foster was a plagiarist, but every time the charges have fallen quickly to a well deserved oblivion. If, as it is claimed, it is so easy to write a simple tune, why haven't there been thousands instead of a few dozen immortal melodies?

To Pittsburgh, Foster is even more important that you who live here realize. Here is a city that represents to many the height of industrialism and materialism. The cradle of great fortunes, it is probably the most highly organized center of manufacturing in our nation. In its frontier days, when Stephen's father first came here to live, it was the outpost of the east--the jumping-off place for westward expansion--and it saw hardy men who passed through on their way to open new territory.

Yet for all its materialism, for all the coldness and hardness of its steel, Pittsburgh has long been an art and music center, and the breath of its steel furnaces has not withered the flowers it has touched, for it has given America two of the most outstanding composers of music--Stephen Foster and Ethelbert Nevin. Genius may flourish in green fields and meadows and it may also flower in cities. The soil of Pittsburgh has been as fertile and as kind to the creative spirit as that of any other part of the nation; in some ways it has been more kind, for the simple songs of Stephen Foster and some of the lilting tunes of Ethelbert Nevin may be heard after many less spontaneous, labored symphonies are forgotten.

Stephen Foster offers a complete example of what immortality really means. Here are we, commemorating the seventieth anniversary of his death, and yet he never really died. The soul of the man has been with us for all these seventy years, just as it was with Stephen while he walked this earth. Those who achieve immortality are those who leave something that will not be forgotten. How can they die who are remembered through that which was part of them?

Seventy years ago that which was mortal of Stephen Foster was brought back to Pittsburgh and laid to rest beside those he had loved so dearly. But that which was immortal of Stephen Foster sings on--quite simply, as he would have wished it to sing, but unceasingly on--through the years, and perhaps through the ages.


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