The Arts Shaped by Conflict (1820-1865)
At the beginning of the 19th Century, when Lewis and Clark set out to explore the western regions of our continent, the nation was comprised of 16 states. In 1850, the 31st state, California, was admitted to the Union. Suddenly the outlines of our country changed drastically.
How could musical traditions spread across such an expanse? One way involved a popular movement called Singing Schools. Itinerant musicians went from town to town selling songbooks that frequently were printed in a notation system called “shape-note.” These singing masters set up temporary schools and taught a uniform body of song to the settlers. So even as the population spread west, America was unified by a shared song repertoire.
In all of the arts Americans could observe a change from the “Classical” to the “Romantic.” Back in Europe, Napoleon and Beethoven signaled the rise of individualism. The musical world of Paris, Vienna, and St Petersburg became fascinated with virtuosity. In salons and concert halls, the astonishing skills of individual virtuosi made news. Some of those virtuosi made their way to America, most famously the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind who toured with the P.T. Barnum Circus. We are astonished to realize that the spectacular playing of a genius violinist or pianist, or the stratospheric singing of an operatic soprano, evoked “oohs” and “aahs” from Americans who had never witnessed such music-making.
Romantic trends in literature and paintings of the early 19th Century shaped American thought and culture too. (We will take a closer look at these in Unit 6.)
But America was headed for its greatest conflict, the Civil War of 1861-1865. Political passions ran high, and those passions inspired great art. We take a look at the writings of the abolitionists, poetry about the war, negro spirituals, Civil War songs, and military music in general.
U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York
University of Louisiana, Monroe, Louisiana
Shiloh Battlefield, Shiloh, Tennessee
Things To Consider
A. Shape-Note Singing
- Try to find a shape-note singing session in your community.
- Look in the back of a traditional hymnal at the index, which lists the sources or names of the tunes. Do you find some familiar hymns with source names like “Sacred Harp” or “Southern Harmony”?
B. The Civil War
- Author and historian Shelby Foote said that the Civil War is the most important event in American history, that it “defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became.”
- Think about how war inevitably triggers a poignant and rich creativity. In addition to the Civil War, think about the songs that came out of the Revolutionary War and World War I.
a. What about the origin of our National Anthem?
b. Consider this list of Civil War novels
- If you have seen the Ken Burns series on the Civil War, or have the opportunity to watch it, think about the many ways music, poetry, and images are used in the film to tell the story. Hear what Ken Burns has to say on this subject (you might be surprised to learn way the music in this film came about).
C. Military Music
- West Point Historian Sherman Fleek says no institution felt the Civil War as acutely as West Point because its graduates fought against each other as they led the armies of the North and South.
- Look at some of West Point’s notable alumni.
- The West Point Band dates back to 1817. What role would the band have played back then? Would the music be a unifying factor for West Point’s graduates across time?
- Music historically has played played an important role in giving signals to troops in the field. Think about this unamplified music.
a. What instruments could be heard over the din of battle?
b. How far could the sounds travel?
c. Why were audible signals (music) preferred over visual signals?
Things To Explore
History of Negro Spirituals