Stephen Foster Songs


Program Notes…………………………………………………………..John Ostendorf

Stephen Foster was a figure of contradictions: the composer was much loved by the public, but was at the same time a thoughtless husband and father. While his songs reflect a real intimacy with the antebellum South, Foster was not from the south and only once traveled into the region. Was he merely an “artless genius” who knew little about music or a well-studied craftsman? Foster was America's earliest popular and successful song-writer. Yet he died alone and penniless—not in the South, not even at his family home in Pittsburgh—but at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. 19th century biographies clouded any accurate picture of Foster's life and character. Only in this century has scholarship shed clear light on some of these issues.

Foster's Life

The facts of Stephen Collins Foster's biography are not complicated. He was born on the Fourth of July, 1826 near Pittsburgh, the ninth child to a middle class family. The young man travelled to Cincinnati to work for his brother's steamship company. He met and married Jane McDowell in 1850; a single child, Marion, was born a year later. Foster's preoccupation with music (and alcohol) led to a brief separation from his wife. “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” is a reference to Jane and was written for (and sent to) her during their estrangement. “Maggie by My Side,” also composed at this time was, on the other hand, written for a woman clearly not his wife. Both songs are recorded here. Jane cared little for her husband's music: she talked while it was being performed. But by the mid-1850's the little family was re-united and living in Pittsburgh.

The outbreak of the War and financial hardship brought the composer to New York in the early 1860's to be close to his publisher. But, contrary to contemporary reports, Foster did not operate a grocery store, did not use its backroom as a saloon, and was not a drunk. Complications from an infected cut ended his life in 1864, not a debauched life-style.

More Contradictions

The poetry of the songs is largely Foster's own, How could a man who only once set foot in the South (a honeymoon trip to New Orleans) speak so eloquently of plantation life? A local historian examined that question. He reasoned that Pittsburgh was an active stop on the Underground Railway by which thousands of slaves escaped to Canada. This first-hand exposure and the abundance of Abolitionist literature could have “inspired the sentiment which pervades the songs of Mr. Foster from beginning to end.”

While Stephen Foster's personal and business habits may have been chaotic, research has shown the man to have been a dedicated musician. Despite early biographers' description of an unschooled lightweight, the fact is that Foster carefully studied the American minstrel tradition and knew German Lieder and Irish/Scottish song literature. His brother Morrison makes particular reference in a 1904 biography to his study of Beethoven and Mozart. The delightful spoofs of Meyerbeer and Donizetti arias (“Gems from Lucia” are included here) also suggest a keen awareness of the European opera scene.

Foster's Music

Stephen Foster's songs are often set for multiple voices, diverse instruments and even a cappella chorus. An opera, The Invisible Prince, does not, alas, survive. His witty solo piano compositions are too few in number. The most charming, Foster's “Soirée Polka,” an amusing thumb of the nose at Chopin, is recorded here. A large body of composition dubbed—again, somewhat facetiously—“Music for Social Orchestra” was arranged by Foster as dance tunes, ditties and miniatures for one, two, three and four instruments of the performers' choosing.

But it is on the enormous output of solo songs that Stephen Collins Foster's reputation ultimately rests. The originals (and a wealth of revisions and subsequent editions) were painstakingly assembled during this century by Isaiah Lilly and housed in the Foster Hall Collection (originally at Indianapolis) at the University of Pittsburgh.

The songs reflect the concerns of the composer and his day. They fall into two apparent categories. First are the upbeat minstrel folk tunes depicting plantation life. These were popular with street singers and minstrel troupes—the New Orleans Serenaders, the Campbell Minstrels and the Christy Minstrels—early in Foster's career. Known as “Ethiopian songs,” despite their affection and affinity for the plantation blacks, their texts can seem offensive today. On the current recording “The Glendy Burke,” “The Shanghai Chicken” and the popular “Camptown Races” are examples of the minstrel song.

More musically sophisticated are Stephen Foster's refined parlor songs. Their accompaniments are often elaborate and harmonically intricate. These songs deal with love and home life. “Maggie by my Side,” “O Willie, Is it You, Dear?” and the duet from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet “Wilt Thou be Gone?” are offered as examples. But it is a mistake to overstress this dichotomy; Foster himself did not. Indeed, many of his best songs use “minstrel” topics set to gentler “parlor” tunes. The duet “Nelly Was a Lady,” his trio setting of “Ole Black Joe,” and “Hard Times,” all recorded here, are obvious plantation subjects sung over lilting melodies.

Presenting the Songs

Who should perform this material? In the composer's day street singers and church choirs did; Foster's own family did. Bands in summer gazebos played arrangements. Cultivated opera singers included his songs on their recitals. Madame Galli-Curci took her Foster repertoire seriously:—“sing it with simplicity, directness and pathos,” she advised.

The compilers of the current Critical Edition of Foster's complete works offer an apt observation: “Modern performances of Foster's music are often burdened by a misguided sense of authenticity—a notion of fidelity more appropriate to the music of Foster's European contemporaries.” It is the intention of this recording to present the wealth of Foster's music—but not with a lone vocalist and accompanist from a single musical vantage point. Instead, both “classical” and “folk” musicians have gathered to sing and play on dulcimers, fiddles, accordions, pennywhistles and old pianos. Despite occasional wheezing, crunching and crackling, we hope these antique instruments—and our wonderful contemporary vocalists—will charm the listener and capture something of Stephen Foster's diverse genius that one might have experienced on a little 19th century concert stage, a street corner or on a back porch…