Charleston’s First Orchestra: The St. Cecilia Society
Today we’re going to travel back in Lowcountry history to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the first orchestra in the British America, which was formed right here in Charleston, a decade before the birth of the United States. I’m talking about Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society, the first musical organization in America, which was formed in the spring of 1766 and gave its first concerts in October of that year. The society is still around today, but they got out of the concert business in 1820, and since that time have kept a pretty low profile. You may have heard of the St. Cecilia Society in the context of secretive debutante balls, or perhaps you’ve had a sip of the potent beverage called St. Cecilia Society Punch, but I’m not talking about any of that modern stuff.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the St. Cecilia Society was founded as a subscription concert organization, and for fifty-four years it sponsored an annual concert series that was the envy of every other city on the continent. In fact, one could argue that the roots of every symphony orchestra in the United States can be traced back to this Charleston society. I’m not trying to claim that the first concerts in America took place in Charleston. Documentary evidence shows that concerts of European music were heard in other British-American cities, including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, as well as colonial cities in Spanish Latin America and South America, and in French Canada, before the establishment of the St. Cecilia Society in Charleston in 1766. But there’s a difference. In British America, concerts in the early eighteenth century were usually what the British call “one off” events rather than part of a continuous series. Furthermore, concerts in early British America were generally organized by the performers—professional musicians—who sold tickets and hoped to make a profit.
In Charleston, things were different in both of these regards. Beginning in 1766, the St. Cecilia Society was a stable, corporate body, organized and managed by wealthy gentlemen, who contracted with professional musicians and hired performance spaces. Each year, over a period of fifty-four years, The St. Cecilia Society sponsored a regular series of fashionable concerts for the members of their elite society and their families and guests. In all, I estimate that the society presented more than four hundred concerts between 1766 and 1820. Considering these facts, it’s not a stretch to call our St. Cecilia Society the most significant musical institution in the United States before the founding of the New York Philharmonic in 1842.
So why have you never heard of it? Well, for two reasons. First, the paper records of the St. Cecilia Society’s concert era were destroyed in the great Charleston fire of December 1861, and the memories of its golden age rapidly disappeared. Second, the story of the history of American music was written in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries by writers based in the northeast, who focused on the musical traditions of the northeast. In short, the published history of music in America is mostly the history of music in New England, writ large.
A decade ago I spent four years researching and reconstructing the musical activity of Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society. The result was my doctoral dissertation, which I turned into a book titled Votaries of Apollo, which was published in 2007 by the University of South Carolina Press. If you’re interested in learning a lot more detail about this topic, I suggest you check out that book, but today I’m going to a quick overview of everything you need to know about Charleston’s first orchestra, so you too can commemorate its 250th anniversary.
Let’s start with the origins of the St. Cecilia Society in the spring of 1766, when a subscription list circulated among the wealthy gentlemen of urban Charleston. Rather than organizing concerts and selling tickets, the subscribers created a private organization to which they pledged an annual payment in return for the right to attend the society’s concerts. In 1766, this subscription method of concert organization was the first of its kind in British America, but it was a carbon copy of similar organizations then active in London, Edinburg, Dublin, and many other British cities. The gentlemen of Charleston were thus imitating an important, though forgotten, cultural practice in contemporary London, which, at that time, was rapidly turning into the musical capital of Western Europe. With the money pledged up front, the society could then plan a series of concerts without fear of losing money. In October 1766, the society inaugurated a series of fortnightly performances, and on the 22nd of November 1766 held its first celebration of the feast day of St. Cecilia, the traditional patron saint of music.
Over the span of fifty-four years of concert activity, 1766 to 1820, the St. Cecilia Society presented 43 seasons of regular concerts. In that half-century, there were a total of eleven years of inactivity, caused by various wars and economic problems. You can read all about those issues in my book. In the meantime, back to the concerts. The date of the beginning and end of each season varied from year to year, but the concerts generally began in mid-autumn and continued fortnightly, or every other week, through early spring. The number of concerts each season also varied, but over the course of half a century they averaged about ten performances per season. A few seasons at the turn of the nineteenth-century saw as many as twenty concerts in a year. After 1820, elegant balls or dancing assemblies replaced the concerts, but dancing was not a new addition to the society’s activities. Beginning with its inaugural season in 1766, each and every concert was followed by several hours of social dancing.
Who was in the St. Cecilia Society? The full list of the early members of Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society perished with the rest of its records during the Civil War, but I spent several years plowing through documentary records and uncovered more than two hundred names. This number represents only a fraction of the membership in the society’s first century, but it does facilitate some general conclusions. From its beginning, the St. Cecilia Society’s membership included the most prosperous planters, politicians, lawyers, physicians, and merchants in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Following the example of the numerous subscription concert organizations in late eighteenth-century Britain, the membership of the St. Cecilia Society was (and still is) open only to men. Women have formed a significant part, even the majority of the audience at the society’s events since 1767, but they have never been considered as members of the organization.
Who was in the audience listening to these concerts? From the beginning, the St. Cecilia concerts were open only to the gentlemen members of the society and their guests, which regularly including the ladies of the members’ families and visiting gentlemen. The early success of its concerts prompted the society to enact measures to control access to its events. That is to say, they had problems with party crashers. Many of the society’s early rules articulated the eligibility requirements for male guests, and expressly prohibited the admission of “boys.” Thus ladies of all ages were always welcome, but teenage boys had to wait until they turned twenty-one, and then they had to purchase a membership in order to gain admission.
Where were these fancy concerts held? In its long history, the St. Cecilia Society has never owned or built its own performance space. During its concert era the society hired or rented eight different venues in Charleston, mostly located within taverns and coffee houses, ranging in size from approximately 1,000 square feet to nearly 3,600 square feet. This fact is not unusual, for in London at the same time, there were no spaces dedicated solely to concert performances. The modern symphony hall is a mid-nineteenth century, Romantic-era phenomenon. Of the venues rented by the St. Cecilia Society in Charleston, four of these structures still survive: the Great Room in the Exchange Building, the Long Room of McCrady’s Tavern, the South Carolina Society Hall, and the first South Carolina State House (now Charleston County Courthouse).
Who performed the music at the St. Cecilia Concerts? The music was performed by a combination of amateurs and hired professionals. Like the British subscription concert organizations it emulated, the core of the society’s early orchestra was drawn from its membership, and seasoned professionals were hired as its treasury grew. Professional musicians were usually drawn from the local population or recruited through private channels, but in 1771 the society advertised throughout the American colonies, and in London, to fill several positions, offering contracts for one to three years. On the eve of the American Revolution, the orchestra of the St. Cecilia Society included at least twenty musicians, including gentlemen amateurs and professionals from England, the Dutch Republic, France, Germany, Italy, and the West Indies.
Following several years of rebuilding its forces in the wake of the American Revolution, the size of the society’s orchestra was augmented in 1793 by the opening of the Charleston Theatre, with its seasonally resident orchestra, and the nearly simultaneous arrival of French musicians fleeing the Haitian Revolution. Over the next two decades, the society enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the local theater musicians, many of whom traveled northward for the summer months and performed at other concert series.
Female amateur musicians and female professionals appeared regularly at the St. Cecilia Society’s concerts, as instrumental or vocal soloists. Professional singers, usually affiliated with the local theater, presented songs from popular English and French stage works. Young lady amateurs, generally performing on the harpsichord, piano, or harp, occasionally played solo works or appeared in small ensembles or as concerto soloists.
What sort of musical repertoire was heard at the concerts of Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society? Despite the long distance between Charleston and London, the repertoire of our concerts generally kept pace with the musical fashions of contemporary Britain. The constant commercial trade between the two cities, augmented by Charleston’s fervent desire to follow English fashions, encouraged the importation of musical works by the most "modern" and "fashionable" European composers, or at least the works of composers then favored in London. Among the composers whose works were heard in Charleston between 1766 and 1820 are Carl Friedrich Abel, Johann Christian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, George Frideric Handel, Joseph Haydn, Leopold Kozeluch, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Josef Mysliveček, Ignaz Pleyel, and Johann Stamitz.
London musical fashions did not completely monopolize the concert repertoire heard in Charleston during this period. Thanks to the influx of French musicians in the 1790s in the wake of the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution, Charleston audiences heard the works of contemporary French composers such as François Adrien Boieldieu, Nicolas-Marie Dalayrac, André Ernest Modeste Grétry, Étienne Méhul, and others.
In keeping with British practices of the day, each of the St. Cecilia Society’s concerts was about two hours long and included a mix of musical genres. Orchestral works opened and closed each of the “acts” or “parts” of the concert, while a varied succession of concertos, pieces for small instrumental ensembles, and vocal selections filled the rest of the bill.
So what did this all sound like? Well, let’s imagine we’re going back in time to a St. Cecilia concert, in their early years before the American Revolution. The concert would have opened with a piece of music performed by the entire orchestra, usually a symphony or orchestral overture. For our example, let’s open with the first movement of a symphony by that star of the London concert scene in the 1760s, Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of the famous Johann Sebastian Bach, better known to English audiences as John Bach or J.C. Bach. Emigrating from Germany in the early 1760s, J. C. Bach published a set of six symphonies in London and immediately became a musical celebrity. We know his symphonies were performed in Charleston during this time because the St. Cecilia Society advertised that one of its members had failed to return some of the printed orchestral parts of a Bach symphony to the society’s library. So imagine yourself seated in a candlelit room as the orchestra strikes up the first movement of J. C. Bach’s Sinfonia in E-flat Major, Opus 6, No. 3, marked allegro.
(Audio: an excerpt of a 1994 recording (Philips 442275) of David Zinman and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, performing the first movement of J.C. Bach’s Sinfonia in E-flat major, Opus 6, No. 3, as an example of the typical opening of a St. Cecilia Society concert in late 1760s Charleston.)
After the opening symphony or overture that utilized the full band, the program usually turned to works for smaller ensembles, what we would now call “chamber music”; that is, music for just two, three, or four musicians. As an example of this genre, I’d like to play a piece by that famous Charleston musician, Gaetano Franceschini. I’m being facetious, of course. No one here remembers Gaetano Franceschini, the Italian violinist who was recruited from London to Charleston in 1771. Franceschini left Charleston when the British evacuated the city in December 1782, and he disappeared into obscurity in New York. Before coming to Charleston, however, Franceschini published a set of six trio sonatas in Amsterdam in 1769. A few years ago an Italian chamber ensemble recorded these works, and now they can be heard for the first time since the American Revolution. Gaetano Franceschini’s trio sonatas were written for two violins, cello, and basso continuo, or thorough-bass, which is an antique way of saying the string instruments are accompanied by a keyboard instrument, in case a harpsichord, that improvises a harmonic accompaniment. In other words, a trio sonata is a work performed by four instruments. Let’s listen to the first movement of Franceschini’s trio sonata, Opus 1, No. 1, marked Andante con moto, or moderate tempo with motion.
(Audio: an excerpt from a 1998 recording (Tactus TC.730601) of the Accademia della Magnifica Comunità performing the first movement of Gaetano Franceschini’s trio sonata Opus 1, No. 1, as an example of the sort of chamber music that would have been heard at a concert of Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society in the early 1770s.)
After the opening orchestral piece and a bit of chamber music, the society’s concert programs usually alternated between larger orchestral works and pieces for smaller ensembles. Interspersed among these, however, there was also a bit of vocal music, either popular songs of the day or excerpts from favorite operas. These works were performed by young gentlemen members of the society, or the young ladies who made up a significant part of the guest audience. In addition, the St. Cecilia Society often hired professional singers, both male and female, usually drawn from the professional ranks of the local theater. As an example of this part of a typical St. Cecilia Concert, I’d like to play one of my favorite English pop songs of the late eighteenth century, by Thomas Linley the elder, called “The Lark Sings High in the Cornfield.” It’s a simple, strophic song for a high voice and harpsichord. I want you to imagine a young lady, a teenager, from a wealthy family in Charleston, making her debut by standing before her friends and family and singing something like this:
(Audio: an excerpt from a 1991 recording (Hyperion CDA66497) of the famous English soprano Emma Kirkby, accompanied by Timothy Roberts on harpsichord, performing Thomas Linley’s song, “The Lark Sings High in the Cornfield,” as an example of the sort of pop songs that one would have heard at a St. Cecilia Society concert in Charleston just before the American Revolution.)
In that era, and throughout the half-century of the society’s concert series, it was customary for each concert to include at least one work for solo keyboard. This might be a complicated sonata performed by a highly-skilled professional musician, either male or female, or it might be a lighter work performed by a young lady or gentleman who might be taking lessons from one of the society’s hired professional musicians. Let’s listen to an example composed by James Nares, an English musician who was the tutor of Peter Valton, the organist at St. Philip’s Church and one of the founding members of the St. Cecilia Society in 1766. Here’s the final movement of Lesson No. 8 in G major for harpsichord by James Nares. It’s a jig, so feel free to tap your toes or cut the rug.
(Audio: excerpt from a 2007 recording (Avie AV2152) of Julian Perkins performing the final movement of Lesson No. 8 in G major for harpsichord by James Nares.)
Nares and his harpsichord music, like the other pieces we’ve just sampled, may be obscure to audiences today, and probably sound quite old fashioned to modern ears, but it’s important to remember that once upon a time this sort of music represented the latest, most fashionable, and most modern music that audiences in London and in Charleston could ask for.
So why did Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society stop giving concerts? The termination of the society’s concert series in 1820 was motivated by several factors. By 1815, musical fashions in Charleston were changing and enthusiasm for the society’s concerts, a conspicuous vestige of the Age of Enlightenment, was in decline. In 1817, the Charleston Theatre Company initiated a touring circuit that disrupted the society’s long-standing practice of sharing musicians with the local theater. On a number of occasions in the ensuing seasons, the St. Cecilia Society offered balls as last-minute substitutes for concerts when a sufficient number of musicians could not be procured. Finally, the Panic of 1819, the first big depression in U.S. history, unraveled the local economy and induced the organization to curtail its activities. After three increasingly meager seasons, the society held its last regular concert in the spring of 1820.
So what’s the take-away from this discussion of Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society? Think about this: For more than a century, music historians have characterized 18th-century American concert life in general as a “feeble imitation” of European practices; that what we now call “classical music” didn’t gain a foothold in the United States until the mid-nineteenth century. In contrast to these conclusions, however, my reconstruction of the St. Cecilia Society’s concert era demonstrates the existence of a robust and long-term effort in Charleston to replicate Old World models. In short, the musical legacy of Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society is without a doubt the most significant example of concert patronage in the United States before the advent of the Boston Academy of Music in 1833 or the founding of the New York Philharmonic Society in 1842.
The St. Cecilia Society continues to flourish in the 21st century, but two hundred years of social change have sapped much of its original vitality. It’s a private organization, as it has been since 1766, and so I’m inclined to respect the privacy of the current members. On this occasion, however, in November of 2016, I felt it worthwhile to acknowledge the 250th anniversary of the society’s first concerts, and to celebrate the significant musical legacy that they created right here in Charleston. And finally, I wanted to encourage all of you to support your local orchestra and its musicians, because, well, it’s been an important Charleston tradition since 1766.