Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Thomas Jefferson's Music Instruments

Jefferson and Liberty
Much of the Jefferson family's music has survived, as well as records of Jefferson's various purchases. Jefferson bought a great deal of music, and constantly exchanged music with friends and relatives. He was an incurable tinkerer with a keen interest in all the technical innovations for instruments, and corresponded with friends about all the new and "often peculiar things to do with keyboard instruments." He saw to it that his daughters and grandchildren were well educated musically. He played violin and enjoyed singing, and for most of his life had access to musical performances or could participate in them himself. We don't have many instruments now that can definitely be identified as belonging to his family, as they literally used them up, by constant playing, or selling, or shipping hither and yon, and the family correspondences and account books leave the record too confused to sort out exactly how many instruments he had, and what ultimately became of them.

Jefferson's first love was the violin. We don't know when and how Jefferson learned to play violin, except that he could read music and certainly could play by the time he was fourteen and had entered Maury's boarding school, as he was copying his father's favorite tunes then into music notebooks. He seems to have been more than a competent violinist, and played in weekly concerts with Governor Fauquier and his gentlemen friends during his years at Williamsburg. We know that during this period, Jefferson bought a kit, a small dancing master's violin, made a little case for it that fit on his saddle, and took it with him everywhere. His wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson played keyboard instruments and guitar, and Jefferson ordered her a clavichord from London before they were married, but after seeing a piano, the newest musical fad, he changed his order to a fortepiano. Various visitors to the Jefferson household praised Jefferson's skill on violin and Martha's skill on keyboard. Jefferson said that during these years he played his violin "no less than 3 hours a day."

During Jefferson's stay in Paris, he took advantage of all the music Paris had to offer at the time. He purchased violin and guitar strings, music stands and desks, a small violin, a guitar, and a bird organ, as well as ordering a harpsichord for his daughter Patsy and renting a piano for her for two years. He enrolled both daughters with a harpsichord teacher, guitar teacher, and dancing master. A student at the University of Virginia said that Jefferson had once given him a "portable fiddle", described as a "small narrow one he had made in Paris in order to carry it about with him for practice".

Jefferson recorded only three violin purchases, although he probably had other violins, and a Monticello slave said his master kept three fiddles. One of these was supposed to have been a valuable Cremona instrument, and we know that Cremona and Stainer violins and copies were plentiful in Virginia by the mid-eighteenth century. In 1770 the Jefferson home at Shadwell burned, but according to family tradition, a slave saved one of the violins. After Jefferson's death, the estate tried to have the two violins he still owned sold in England, but it is not know if this actually occurred, or if the appraisals agreed that the supposed Cremona instrument was valuable. Although many "Jefferson violins" have appeared over the years, there is no evidence that any of them were actually owned by him. He gave his kit to his grandson Meriwether Lewis Randolph, but we do not have that instrument, either.

Jefferson tuned and restored his own keyboard instruments, and he bought Kirkman harpsichords for both daughters. He regretted not being able to play keyboard instruments himself, but made up for it in his enthusiasm for the technical aspects of the instruments and the latest gadgets and innovations available for them. He wanted to buy a glass harmonica with an extended range and an organ, and wrote for information on them, but never purchased either. He had a celestine attachment made for his daughter Patsy's harpsichord, although Kirkman, the maker, hated the celestine attachments and was reluctant to install them. The celestine by Adam Walker was one of the attempts to produce a sustained "bowed" tone in a keyboard instrument, using moving rosined silk bands, a sort of distant cousin to the hurdy gurdy. (One of the earliest descriptions of this type of keyboard instruments is one described by Praetorius in 1610, where its inventor says one of its advantages is that the sounds "can be used to please women and children who otherwise do not greatly care for music - and also for the amusement of very respectable people when they are a little tipsy from a good drink.") Jefferson had also been fond of Benjamin Franklin's sticcado, a "pretty little instrument" Franklin often carried with him, which resembled a small dulcimer with glass bars and keys. Jefferson was interested in improving its range, but apparently he never got around to owning one.

The Jefferson family owned at least two guitars, maybe more, as Mrs. Jefferson, his daughter Polly, and three granddaughters all played guitar. According to one granddaughter, he bought her a beautiful Spanish or English guitar. At Monticello, there is now a little ten-stringed guitar which family tradition says was Virginia's guitar.

Over the years, the Jefferson family owned quite a number of pianos, so many that "anyone who is not a piano-lover will readily conclude that these people had a superfluity of pianos".

In Jefferson's later years, he was surrounded by his grandchildren and the family's many music interests. It is said that they "often sang and danced in the evenings, either to the music of a Negro fiddler or to the old harpsichord. They never mention Jefferson's playing for them, although he and their mother encouraged their activity and enjoyed watching the dancing. Several of the girls and boys also played flageolets." At the age of seventy-four, Jefferson wrote "Music is invaluable where a person has an ear. It furnishes a delightful recreation for the hours of respite from the cares of the day, and lasts us through life." His music certainly did.

This information is from Thomas Jefferson and Music, by Helen Cripe, University Press of Virginia, 1974.

A sheet music GIF and a MIDI of Jefferson and Liberty are on the music page