By Elizabeth J. Bailey, Curator
Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts
June 1, 1999
For the Victorians, music was an anchor of sorts. In a time when the world was rapidly changing due to the Industrial Revolution, music offered families a chance to gather in the peace of the home. Creating a nurturing, restful home was a goal all Victorians strove towards. One way to provide this was through small family rituals like singing together in the evenings or listening to a child play a musical instrument. Music also provided an escape from the hub-bub of everyday life. The world was a tumultuous place in the late nineteenth century. Although great advances were being made in all areas of science and industry, there was a high price to pay. The streets were noisy with sounds of industry, the air dirty with soot; Victorians saw music as a way to transcend the clammer around them.
Music, therefore, was given a very distinctive place in the home. Many larger homes had special music rooms devoted entirely to musical pursuits. In the music room, the family displayed their instruments and gave musical performances for one another. We know from oral history interviews that the Physick family had both a baby grand piano (with gold strings!) and an Aeolian player – a type of player piano. Although they did not refer to their parlor as the “music room,” it was nonetheless where the instruments were kept. In addition to pianos and organs, harps, guitars, banjos, accordions, harmonicas, mandolins, and zithers were common in Victorian homes. Kazoos, parlor bells, and toy instruments were also available for young children to experiment with.
Music as a pastime grew extremely popular and soon singing schools were established. Here young ladies and men could go for lessons in reading music, take classes in signing and voice, and learn to play instruments. Some singing masters also traveled throughout the country side offering their services to any who wanted to improve their musical abilities. By the end of the century, large amounts of printed sheet music were available to everyone. Known as “parlor songs,” the music was simple and easy to follow.
Community bands sprang up everywhere. The bands played at all kinds of public gatherings including parades, festivals, picnics, outdoor concerts, dances, and carnivals. Technological advancements in brass instruments meant that trumpets, cornets, and horns were easier to play and widely accessible. This lead to the brass band, including the most famous of all, John Philip Sousa’s. From the 1890s to the 1920s, Sousa brought the outdoor concert to the height of its popularity in America.
The residents of Cape May also enjoyed outdoor concerts in the summer. Period newspapers tell of “Musical Festivals” scheduled for the summer months. By July 1882, the festivals were gaining such popularity that the newspapers reported they were “growing to great proportions.” (Cape May Ocean Wave, July 22, 1882) Hotels were often the sponsors of these outdoor musical events:
At Congress Hall, the Marine Band from Washington will furnish music all summer, and, in addition, there will be an orchestra of seventeen pieces. Professor Asher will get up children’s fancy dances and a number of entertainments. As the Stockton Hotel, Simon Hassler will have charge of the music. (Cape May Wave, May 19, 1883)
The work is already in progress for the getting together of the largest orchestra, which is to take part in the musical festival to be given at Congress Hall Sunday evening. This event will be the greatest musical treat of the summer there, and will be held upon the lawn, where a raised platform is to be erected to accommodate the orchestra and the singers of national reputation which have been engaged for the occasion. Professor Simon Hassler, with his usual vigor, will lead the orchestra, and will give to the public a highly satisfactory program, from which the lovers of good music can enjoy a feast. Del Puente, the celebrated baritone, had been engaged to appear. Madame Suelke, the superb soprano, will also appear. Tickets of admission will be 50 cents. On every hand the festival is spoken of as the musical event of the season, and there is no doubt that the attendance will be as large on that night as that of any event which has, or will take place, this season. The spacious piazzas swept by cool ocean breezes, will make an ideal spot for one to enjoy such grandly superb music as is rendered by Simon Hassler’s orchestra. (Cape May Ocean Wave, August 13, 1898)
Cape May held numerous musical delights. The newspapers proclaimed “Cape May promises to be a musical summer center this season.” They also noted that “the musical festival will greatly help prolonging the season well into September,” stating that the festival would “draw like one of the Pennsylvania RR’s big engines.” (Cape May Ocean Wave, August 21, 1886)
As the turn of the century approached, “mechanical music” began to replace live performed music. By the 1890s, Thomas Edison’s phonograph was gaining popularity. Music boxes, player pianos, and phonographs soon entirely replaced the organ and piano in families’ evening musical recitals. Most simply saw the mechanical devices as easier than learning to read music, sing, and play an instrument. By the 1920s, the radio became the dominate music supplier in the household. Music had evolved from a family activity to an individualized experience losing the Victorian ideal of a peaceful, nurturing home environment.