WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Making Music in Early America, an exhibition opening on August 20 in the Mark M. and Rosemary W. Leckie Gallery at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, will envelop visitors in the musical world of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the 18th century, music was everywhere: in the workplace, the military campsites, the quarters of the enslaved, the church, the theater, the ballroom and the home. Music was an essential part of life that helped foster a sense of community, whether people were accompanying the organ in song at church or enjoying an impromptu concert at home.
As told through more than 60 instruments and their accessories, the social history and material culture of early American music will be revealed. This is the first exhibition to show the full scope of Colonial Williamsburg’s musical instruments collection, including some pieces that were recently acquired. It is scheduled to remain on view through December 2025.
Organized in five sections featuring music in the home, in religion, in education, in public performance and in the military, Making Music in Early America will include harps, organs, violins and other string instruments, fifes, flutes, a bassoon, a grand harmonicon, drums, horns and much more. While the instruments are fascinating in and of themselves, the musicians who played them and their roles in society take center stage in this exhibition.
“Colonial Williamsburg has been collecting early musical instruments for more than 90 years, but we have never before had the opportunity to show the full range of the collection,” said the Foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine Chief Curator and Vice President for Museums, Preservation and Historic Resources, Ronald L. Hurst. “Supported by examples of original sheet music and paintings of early Americans playing their instruments, this exhibition will place these remarkable objects in their rich, historic context.”
Among the many highlights of Making Music in Early America is a barrel organ, or hand organ, made by Longman, Clementi & Co. in London, England, circa 1789-1801. It is a hand-cranked organ that could be played inside the home on demand with no musical talent required. The organ barrels operated much like a music box and included dance music, religious music and military marches. They produced music on demand similar to a juke box or record player, if one had the strength to crank the handle and switch out the barrels to change the tunes.
In the September 17, 1767, edition of The Virginia Gazette, an item advertising a similar instrument read: “Just Imported from London, a VERY neat HAND ORGAN, in a mahogany case, with a gilt front, which plays sixteen tunes, on two barrels; it has four stops, and every thing is in the best order. The first cost as 16£ sterling, and the Lady being dead it came in for, any person inclining to purchase it may have it on very reasonable terms. Inquire at the Post Office, Williamsburg.”
One of the earliest hunting horns known in American collections is another featured object in the exhibition. Simple hunting horns were being made in the American colonies as early as 1765, but the majority were imported from Europe, including this brass horn, made by Johannes Leichamschneider in Vienna, Austria, circa 1715. As hunting horns were worn by the rider, they were easily battered. As a result, early hunting horns rarely survived, and this is an outstanding example that scholars come to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to study.
Although the horn section may have been modified and updated as time passed, the bell is original. Only one other just like this example survives with a history of use at Mount Vernon. It is recorded that George Washington’s enslaved valet, William Lee, performed the important duties of huntsman, tending to the horses and hounds as well as blowing the hunting horn during fox hunts at Mount Vernon and other estates. Although the history of Colonial Williamsburg’s hunting horn is unknown, it illustrates the once-prominent role played by free and enslaved huntsmen in the early South.
Revolutionary War military instruments are especially rare, and a brass Hessian drum, from the Frebershausen area in the Hesse-Kassel region of what is now Germany, circa 1770-1785, is another featured object to be on view in Making Music in Early America. It was brought to the country by one of the many so-called Hessian units hired by the British to fight in the American Revolution and was most likely captured by American forces. Made of brass, this drum still has some secrets to reveal: Colonial Williamsburg’s experts, with the aid of colleagues across the Atlantic, are researching to which regiment it belonged and are using the painted colors around the top and bottom bands to help solve its mystery.
Also included in the exhibition will be ways for visitors to be able to hear the sounds of four of the instruments – banjo, harpsichord, organized piano and musical glasses – as well as an opportunity to see a musician play an organized piano (the period term indicating the addition of several organ stops playable from the same keyboard).
Additionally, guests will be able to use an interactive touch screen to view an extraordinary music book in the Colonial Williamsburg collection that was owned by Peter Pelham (1721-1805), an English-born American organist, harpsichordist, teacher and composer. Born in London, Pelham and his family immigrated to Boston in 1730. While there, Pelham’s father apprenticed him to Charles Theodore Pachelbel, son of composer Johann Pachelbel, who is known for Canon in D, which is still popular today. Pelham followed Pachelbel to Charleston in 1736, and remained there for a number of years, studying with Pachelbel and later becoming a harpsichord teacher himself. Pelham returned to Boston in 1744 to serve as the first organist of Trinity Church. In 1750 Pelham moved to Williamsburg to serve as organist at Bruton Parish Church.
While in Williamsburg Pelham actively participated in the city’s musical life, giving concerts and teaching young ladies to play the spinet and harpsichord. Additionally, he supported himself and his family by serving as clerk to the royal governor, supervisor of the printing of money, and keeper of the Public Gaol. The music book that will be on view includes music that Pelham enjoyed as well as some of his original compositions. It has never been on view before, and although the original book is too fragile to be placed on view, this digital interactive will allow visitors to page through the book and see the music for themselves.