On September 10, 1748, sixteen-year-old George Washington paid 3 shillings, 9 pence to a “musick master for my entrance.” Young Washington recorded these sparse details in Ledger Book Zero, a personal account ledger listing credits and debits with family, friends, and business associates between 1747 and 1750. This, as far as we can tell, is the first reference to music in the life of George Washington. By no means, would it be the last. Music was an important part of Washington’s life, just as it is with many of us today.
What was teenage age George paying for when he paid the “musick master for . . . entrance”? Well, the lack of details makes it impossible to say with certainty. The most obvious possibility is that he was paying for music lessons. However, letters written by George himself and a friend indicate that Washington had little to no musical talent. Francis Hopkinson, a colleague during the war, composed a series of songs for harpsichord or piano and dedicated them to Washington. In a letter to George dated December 1, 1788, Hopkins explained his dedication even though George could “neither play Musick nor sing Songs.” In a reply on February 5, 1789, Washington agreed, writing “I can neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note on any instrument.” Despite a professed musical inability, it is still possible young George was paying for music lessons in 1748. Often, you might pursue lessons only to discover that you do not have the aptitude.
Regardless, while apparently not musical himself, music surrounded Washington. As Mount Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson notes, “Washington was the head of a household where his wife, her two children, and her four grandchildren (two of whom were raised by the Washingtons) all studied music.” In particular, granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis became fairly skilled at the harpsichord, despite an apparent reluctance to learn. In the summer of 1798, a visiting Polish nobleman enthusiastically claimed that Nelly “plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.”
Another Washington family member with an interest in music was George’s niece Harriot Washington, daughter of Samuel. The first letter in the record between Harriot and her guardian and uncle George was written on April 2, 1790. Harriot was 14-years-old and living at Mount Vernon while President Washington was in New York. The niece asked her uncle to send her a guitar since she wanted to take lessons for “all the young Ladyes are a learning musick.” Harriot was confident “that five or six lessons would be sufficient for any body to learn.” The records consulted reveal no response from Washington. Eventually, Harriot would come to Historic Kenmore to live with her aunt Betty Washington Lewis. She again asked uncle George for a guitar in May of 1792. About a month later, he paid $17 for one. Harriot’s capabilities with the instrument are unknown.
Besides family, another major source of music in Washington’s life was the Continental Army. Music was crucial to 18th century militaries. Fifes and drums issued commands during battle and put a spring in the step during weary marches. Much like the army’s initially amateur soldiers, its fifers and drummers (who were often boys serving with their soldier-fathers) took time to practice and professionalize.
On June 4, 1777, General Washington issued a set of orders. One order dealt with the army’s music, which the General bluntly lamented was “very bad.” He ordered “that the drum and fife Majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them: Stated hours to be assigned, for all the drums and fifes, of each regiment, to attend them, and practice.” Washington concluded, “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”
A notable musical moment in the army’s history was the birthday serenade for General Washington on February 22, 1778 at Valley Forge. The musicians of Proctor’s Artillery played outside the General’s headquarters. Washington’s expense account lists a payment of 1 pound, 5 shillings to Proctor’s band. Joseph Lee Boyle, longtime historian at Valley Forge, explains that “Colonel Proctor commanded an artillery regiment, and this was one of the few, perhaps the only, unit to have musicians besides fifers and drummers. In 1779 ten ‘musicians’ are listed in the band, but not what instruments they played.” Mount Vernon scholars note that this was “the first public recognition of [Washington’s] birthday.”
We’ve seen that music was definitely a part of Washington’s life but it was played by others mostly. George could not play an instrument nor sing. He may have paid for music lessons only to discover his inability. Another reasonable theory, however, is that he paid the “musick master for my entrance” to dancing lessons. Later in life, Washington uses similar phrasing – “Mr McKay entrance to Dancing” – to record a payment of 10 shillings for lessons for stepson John Parke Custis.
Dancing was the leisure time obsession of most Virginians but especially those in the wealthy gentry. For the upper class, explains Amy Stallings, “ being a skilled dancer was an indication of good breeding” and allowed one to “put one’s gentility, accomplishment, beauty, and economic means on display in hopes of impressing—or, in some cases, intimidating—”others. As Philip G. Smucker adds, “Dexterity on the dance floor maintained social status.”
Maintaining social status and the appearance of good breeding skyrocketed in importance to George and the Washington family after the death of father Augustine in 1743. His death created financial hardship and jeopardized the family’s social standing. Without a father, George’s life changed radically. Assisted and supported by both mother Mary and half-brother Lawrence, George was forced to acquire the refined skills and customs of the upper class in Fredericksburg instead of in England while at boarding school.
One of those skills was dancing and the mystery “musick master” perhaps taught teenage George that skill. Over the course of the 18th century, as Stallings notes, “a market developed for professional instructors, or dance masters, who were expected to know the latest dances from Europe.” Virginia’s urban centers with their greater populations and high number of visitors “often boasted multiple dancing schools . . . Dancing masters operated in at least Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Hampton by 1739.” Traveling dance instructors served Virginia’s far-flung rural population. These masters usually “taught the sexes separately, at different hours or different days of the week.”
If Washington was schooled in dancing by the “musick master,” he probably learned the era’s popular minuets, allemandes, and hornpipes. These fancy dances typically began any ball and were the best opportunities to show off one’s dancing abilities and good breeding. The minuet was the most important. As Stallings explains, “A man’s prowess at the minuet—an especially complicated dance, requiring excellent balance and coordination with one’s partner—could buoy his social position, whereas a poor minuet might leave him out of favor.”
Whether he was paying for dancing lessons in 1748 or not, young Washington learned to dance in some fashion, discovering both an extraordinary natural talent and life-long passion for it. Numerous contemporaries recorded instances of Washington dancing and praised his abilities.
“His Excellency . . . and Mrs. Greene . . . danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down.” – General Nathanael Greene to Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, Middle Brook, New Jersey, March 19, 1779.
“His Excellency General Washington was unusually cheerful. He attended the ball in the evening, and with a dignified and graceful air, having Mrs. Knox for his partner, carried down a dance of twenty couples in the arbor on the green grass.” – General Nathanael Greene to Joseph Reed, Morristown, New Jersey, Tuesday, February 29, 1780.
“The General danced every set, that all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him, or as it has since been handsomely expressed, get a touch of him.” – James Tilton to Gunning Bedford Jr., Annapolis, Maryland, December 25, 1783.
“He . . . attended the ball of the 22nd of February; opened it by dancing a minuet with some lady, and then danced cotillions and country dances; was very gallant, and always attached himself, by his attentions, to some one or more of the most beautiful and attractive ladies at the balls.” – Judge Francis T. Brooke (1784).
And finally a word on his dancing from George Washington himself, written on November 12, 1799, just a month prior to his death and turning down an invitation from to a grand function in Alexandria. He wrote,
Mrs Washington and myself have been honoured with your polite invitation to the Assemblies in Alexandria, this Winter; and thank you for this mark of your attention. But alas! our dancing days are no more; we wish, however, all those whose relish for so agreeable, & innocent an amusement [emphasis added], all the pleasure the Season will afford them. and I am Gentlemen Your Most Obedient and Obliged Humble Servant
George saw music and dancing both as “agreeable.” From the mostly taciturn Washington, this is high praise indeed.
Join us on Saturday, April 10 for The Arts at Kenmore: Music on the Lawn and hear 18th century music group Colonial Faire performs music from all walks of colonial society – the music of the taverns, the manor houses, on the streets and on the battlefields. The evening’s opening act will include a short talk exploring the importance of music to George Washington and a theater scene depicting Washington’s first dancing lesson. For more information and tickets, visit kenmore.org/events.
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