A President’s Day Salute: Alexander Reinagle: The First “First Family” Music Teacher

From George Washington’s diary: Tuesday, June 12, 1787:

“Dined at Mr. Morris’s and drunk Tea there. Went afterwards to the concert at the City Tavern.”

Washington was in Philadelphia for what at the time was called “The Federal Convention,”  and we now call the Constitutional Convention, that led to the creation of the modern American state.  Notwithstanding all of the politics and intrigues, however, Washington still found time to attend a number of events in what was at the time the nation’s cultural center.  And on this particular evening he attended a concert by a newly-arrived and highly-regarded “composer, conductor, pianist, and theatrical manager” named Alexander Reinagle.



Washington apparently liked what he heard, for it marked the start of a long friendship between the English-born musician and the nation’s first President.  Reinagle was actually born the same year as Mozart (1756), and died the same year as Haydn (1809).  He came to the US in 1786, first living in New York before taking up residence in Philadelphia, then emerging as the young nation’s cultural center.

George Washington's Favorite Composer

George Washington’s Favorite Composer

In 1789, during Washington’s journey from Philadelphia to New York for his inauguration as the nation’s first President,  Reinagle supposedly composed a “Chorus”, with the words, “Welcome Mighty Chief, Once More!” which the composer rather puffily, (and some contend, untruthfully) put on the frontspiece,

Chorus Sung Before Gen. Washington as he passed under the Triumphal Arch raised on the bridge at Trenton April 21st 1789.   Set to music and dedicated by permission to Mrs. Washington by A. Reinagle… Philadelphia.

Washington was impressed enough with Reinagle that he hired him to give keyboard lessons to Washington’s step-grandaughter Nellie Custis…and to order a top-of-the-line double-manual harpsichord for their homes in Philadelphia and eventually at Mount Vernon…where it still can be seen today!

George Washington's harpsichord

As for Nellie’s proficiency at the instrument, a great article on the Mount Vernon website has her brother remembering  she had to practice”very long and very unwillingly at the harpsichord. . .the poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the immediate eye of her grandmother, a rigid disciplinarian in all things.”  Though apparently not for nought:

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a Polish nobleman who visited Mount Vernon for around two weeks in June of 1798, wrote of Nelly that, “Her sweetness is equal to her beauty, and this being, so perfect of form, possesses all the talents: she plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.” On the last night of his visit, he wrote sadly, “In the evening, for the last time, pretty Miss Custis sang and played on the harpsichord.”

Several Reinagle compositions survive in the Nellie Custis collection of sheet music at Mount Vernon, and upon  Washington’s death in 1799, he composed a Monody on the Death of George Washington.   And the “First Composer” didn’t stop at Washington, his output also includes the Federal March, President Madison’s March and Mrs. Madison’s Minuet. 

Far more substantial and interesting are the four extended keyboard sonatas he composed in the style of his idol C.P.E. Bach, whom Reinagle had known during his travels in Europe.  The so-called “Philadelphia Sonatas” are the only pieces of Reinagle’s that really ever get any hearing at all.  Check out this performance in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio by Handel & Haydn Society keyboardist Ian Watson.

Fireworks on the Radio – A Capitol Fourth

One of my summertime rituals during my days at the downtown network was to produce the radio version of A Capitol Fourth, the annual music, dance, and fireworks extravaganza originating from the West Lawn of the Capitol building and broadcast around the world. And, in truth, it was an event I produced with a certain amount of heart-in-mouth trepidation, owing to its typically all-over-the-map lineup of “star” performers (some “ripped from the headlines,” some Aging Artists You Gotta Respect), resulting in a musical event that veered between the sublime and the ridiculous, and usually settled on the purely kitschy. (I was somewhat cheered to see those concerns echoed by critic Tim Page the other day.)

Besides the, er, music mix, there’s the fun – and terror – of it being an absolutely live event. And, this being DC in midsummer, thunderstorms are always a distinct possibility. Live or not, however, props to the folks at Jerry Colbert’s Capital Concerts, who have been doing the show for 25 years and really know their stuff. Anyway, it was an odd sensation to hear.

So admittedly not my preferred bottle of Moxie, but the show gets huge numbers and it’s as American as…well, fireworks over the Washington Monument. So this year, I got to listen to the show unspool on the radio in real time. Random notes:

*Ain’t live great? What an antidote to the dipped-in-formaldehyde sound of perfection that usually emerges from public radio. Nice to hear people out of breath and stumble over lines from time to time – it somehow makes the event seem a lot more real and immediate.

*That said, as a master of this somewhat peculiar hosting idiom Tony Danza (VERY short of breath and TelePrompTer-challenged) can’t hold a candle to Barry Bostwick.

*Hayden Panettiere (a/k/a this year’s “We gotta have a breakout TV star on the show”) may be pretty and talented, but she sure can’t sing.

*Little Richard, on the other hand, still rocks the house. Close your eyes and you can still hear him in a Macon, Georgia juke joint. By my ears the biggest ovation of the night. (Full disclosure: at a tender age my eyes’n’ears were permanently warped by watching L.R. co-host the Mike Douglas Show some decades ago – a riveting week of live television if there ever was one!)

*So, too, can Yolanda Adams. THOSE are pipes, Hayden!

*And Leonard Bernstein. Despite some rather stilted introductions from Tony D. and conductor Erich Kunzel, the National Symphony Orchestra got the chance to stretch out a bit with a 50th-anniversary performance of a suite from West Side Story. A great thing to hear on the Fourth, and makes you marvel at Lenny’s genius all over again. Call it pop, call it Broadway, call it classical – it’s music that will last and last, and that’s what matters.

*But Tell Tchaikovsky the News: We Gotta Go! (See Live concert, above). Despite the fact that they even went to the trouble to bring in the Choral Arts Society to back up the NSO for the Grand Finale, we were treated to what had to have been the World’s Shortest Performance of the 1812 Overture, an already-in-progress performance that gave us about the last 2 minutes of the whole shebang. And then the bim bam boom of the fireworks drowned the whole thing out, and it was a wrap.

At the end of his preview/rant about the Capitol 4th, Tim Page wrote,

“..My guess is that after you’ve watched A Capitol Fourth, you’ll want to play some music.”
A little snarky, perhaps, but not far off the mark…my reward for keeping the radio dial on 90.9 through the rest of the night was hearing, at about 11:00 pm, a performance of the Second Symphony by American maverick Charles Ives. Brilliant, deep, evocative, cheeky, and utterly American. Don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed it so much. And I’m sure Ives would’ve been tapping his foot to the Capitol Fourth, for that matter.