Yankee Music Culture in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans

February 12, 2014

Our latest post is a guest post by Warren Kimball, an LSU graduate student, who writes about two exciting finds from our collections…

Frederick Müller letter

Hill Memorial Library houses many materals related to Louisiana history, including sources that document the musical culture of New Orleans during the nineteenth century. Some of these sources have even begun to change the way we think about the type of music making that went on in the city during this time.

Nineteenth-century New Orleans is recognized as having been one of America’s most musically vibrant cities. The Théâtre d’Orléans, opened in 1815, was the country’s leading opera house for over fifty years, and competing opera troupes gave American premieres of many now-standard French and Italian operas. In addition to a bustling opera scene, New Orleans audiences supported a rich concert life, hosting such internationally-known touring musicians as violinist Ole Bull and soprano Jenny Lind. Related to this musical diversity was the population’s division by class, language, and skin color. Musical life was largely defined by these divisions, and the city’s various and diverse cultures developed distinct, thriving musical traditions.

Most historical attention to date has been given to the music of the city’s French-speaking residents, and especially to this group’s cultivation of opera. Less attention has been given to the New England immigrants who settled in the city following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Drawn by economic, social, and religious opportunities, these northern-born, English-speaking, Protestant inhabitants made up only a fourth of New Orleans’ white population by midcentury, but they came to exercise economic hegemony over the city’s French-speaking residents. They helped shape antebellum culture in New Orleans by establishing institutions similar to those they left behind in New England, such as the city’s first Protestant churches, English-language newspapers, and public schools. Similarly, these residents established a thriving musical culture modeled upon those of northern cities, particularly Boston.

Frederick Müller letter

Among New Orleans’ most important English-speaking, Protestant musicians in the 1840s was Frederick Müller, a conductor and organist who moved to the city from Boston. In 1842 Müller wrote a letter to an acquaintance in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, describing the musical life of New Orleans and his own professional activities. This letter, housed in the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collection at Hill Memorial Library, provides invaluable insight into nineteenth-century music culture in New Orleans.

Müller described working as the director of music in an Episcopalian church and directing a concert society “similar to [Boston’s] Handel and Haydn Society,” which we know was called the New Orleans Sacred Music Society. Concert societies such as this, which were dedicated to the performance of works by well-known European composers, were very popular in New Orleans during this time, as evidenced by the diary of Luther Field Tower, a cotton clerk from New England who was living in New Orleans. Tower’s diary, which is also housed in Hill Memorial Library, mentions that he attended many concerts and public rehearsals, including those of the New Orleans Sacred Music Society.

Luther Field Tower diary

In his letter, Müller also described teaching music in public schools and establishing a singing school. Since we are able to tell that the letter was written in 1842 from a reference in its postscript to two theater fires, we know that Müller served as a music teacher in two public schools during the first year of their existence in New Orleans, as the music director of the city’s oldest Protestant church, and as the conductor of an ambitious professional orchestra and choir. Müller’s letter therefore establishes him as a leading musician in the city during the 1840s and 1850s, aligns his musical activities with those of prominent Boston musicians, and demonstrates how these immigrants sought to preserve their New England musical culture in their adopted city of New Orleans.

Warren Kimball is a PhD student in musicology at LSU.  His research deals with music making in nineteenth-century New Orleans and the music of Charles Ives. The two manuscripts discussed here formed the basis of a research paper that he presented at a recent conference in Florida.