Friday, October 15, 2010

Early American Parlor Songs

Jeanette MacDonald pic from
Parlor songs are popular songs that meant to be performed in the home, specifically in the parlor which often was where a piano was kept. The songs were printed as sheet music and gained popularity as the number of households with money to purchase the music grew.

The appeal of parlor songs lay in their ability to capture deep emotion through a melody that was pleasant and easy enough for the novice to sing. However, if one chose to sing the song in public one was expected to have a better than average voice and the ability to express the desired emotion the song portrayed. In the article "The Performance of Parlor Songs in America, 1790-1860,"  Nicholas Tawa gives contrasting reviews  that highlight the performer's ability to capture the sentiment of the parlor song, including a review in a Boston newspaper that reports a singer as having "no soul" due to the nature of her over-ornamentation:

For example, because Angelica Catalani's performances of songs stressed her virtuosity through runs, cadenzas, and other rapid ornaments, and because she sang all her songs in a similar manner, a Boston audience judged her to have no "soul." Her singing seemed merely a "tissue of embroidery," John Rowe Parker, editor of the Boston Euterpeiad, writes, and adds: "All this was said around me." On the other hand, a skilled ballad-singer, Clara Fisher, "on one occasion" was able to sing "what was intended to be a ludicrous appeal to sympathy with such wonderful truthfulness of suffering, that a majority of the audience was overcome with tears."

The charm of the parlor song is how it leveled the playing field between professional and amateur. One does not have to have exceptionally high technical skills to master a parlor song. In fact, many of the preferred "ballad-singers" at the height of popularity of the parlor song were singers who were unable to excel in more challenging genres, as shown in the article excerpt above.

Listening: Reviews:

Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair (Foster), CD1, #17 from Recordings for An Introduction to America's Music

This strophic piece was written by Stephen Foster, one of the most popular and prolific writers of parlor songs in the 19th century. The song is typical sentimental fare- the singer is longing to see their love who is no longer near, most likely dead. In this recording there are two female singers accompanied by an autoharp or dulcimer. The fact that the song is written from a man's point of view is of no matter as the singer is merely a vessel of the emotion of the song, as mentioned above. The accompaniment and vocal harmonies are fairly simple and defer to the melody, as they should. The singers' voices are pleasing, however the second singer has a strident tone to her voice and adds a bit too much personality in the form of slurs which can be distracting.

1 comment:

GRodger said...

But how to explain that the male central character is most often sung by a female singer? And that the song was also sung on the minstrel stage by a man in glamour drag? Clearly the layers of meaning here are complex.