Music Played a Notable Part in Lincoln's Life

By Jimerson, Douglas | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 22, 1997 | Go to article overview

Music Played a Notable Part in Lincoln's Life


Jimerson, Douglas, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the American president with the greatest love of music.

Although Lincoln never studied music, as president he probably heard more than any other occupant of the White House. While president, he went to the theater at every possible opportunity to hear operas and musical concerts. He is the only American president to have had an opera performed at his inaugural celebration.

Lincoln was almost childish in his enjoyment of minstrel shows, the 19th-century musical stage shows that were precursors of vaudeville and Broadway's musical theater. He would neglect business or pass up a chance at almost any other entertainment to attend those stage performances.

Henry C. Whitney told of being in Chicago with Lincoln in the latter part of 1860, a few months before Lincoln's nomination for president, when he took Lincoln to see the Ramsey and Newcomb Minstrels. That night, Lincoln heard for the first time the new song "Dixie's Land." Whitney said Lincoln was so pleased with it that he applauded louder than anyone else and called out over and over, "Let's have it again! Let's have it again!"

When he was a boy, Lincoln's mother sang many ballads to him, which perhaps explains his well-documented love of sentimental ballads. His friends knew that certain sentimental ballads would cause his eyes to mist with tears and throw him into deep melancholy. His banjo-thumping friend Ward Hill Lamon often said that when Lincoln was in one of his depressed moods, a lively and humorous song would instantly restore him.

As a boy, Lincoln played the jew's harp - no doubt a suitable instrument to accompany his cousin when he played the fiddle. As an adult, Lincoln carried a harmonica for occasional diversion. A travel companion during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates recalled that one day Lincoln took a harmonica from his pocket and played on it saying, "This is my band. Douglas had a brass band at Peoria, but this will do for me."

When the Lincolns moved into the White House, they obtained a new piano made in 1860 by the Schomacker Co. of Philadelphia. The Lincolns found a prime location for this piano in the lushly furnished Red Room, which was Mrs. Lincoln's favorite sitting room. There the Lincolns also chose to hang Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of George Washington.

They hired a Polish pianist, Alexander Wolowski, to teach the Lincoln boys, Willie and Tad. Wolowski considered himself a court musician to the Lincolns. He had the "run of the Executive Mansion, a privilege he did not abuse," the National Intelligencer reported in 1862.

Given his interest in piano music, whenever he could, the president would attend concerts by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, America's first world-renowned pianist. Lincoln also was a fan of opera. As president, he frequently attended the opera, sometimes without Mrs. Lincoln. Early in his presidency, Lincoln had an opera singer perform at the White House for the first time in American history.

Soprano Meda Blanchard, a Washingtonian who had studied voice in Italy, previewed her DAR Constitution Hall recital at the White House. The Sunday Morning Chronicle reported, "The President was delighted and thanked her enthusiastically."

For the only time in American history, the president in 1865 attended an inaugural opera, Flotow's "Martha." Lincoln enjoyed many operas, including Gounod's "Faust," whose famous "Soldiers' Chorus" was a special favorite. The president was criticized for attending the opera during conflicts at Bull Run and Harpers Ferry, but he retorted, "The truth is, I must have a change of some sort or die."

Lincoln loved music of strong sentiment. After a meeting at the White House ended with a guest playing several popular favorites on the piano, including "Tenting on the Old Campground" and ending with "Lorena," Lincoln thanked him and spoke of how deeply he always had been affected by music of a sentimental nature. …

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