The National Endowment for the Arts’ American Masterpieces: Choral Music initiative is designed to celebrate our national musical heritage by highlighting significant American choral composers and their works of the past 250 years. Stanton’s Sheet Music is proud to present this series highlighting the composers and their works featured in this groundbreaking project.
Although he wrote a few solo piano pieces in his short life, Stephen Foster (1826-1864) produced songs almost exclusively – over 200 of them. His simple, moving melodies have the distinct flavor of a bygone day and yet seem to stay fresh forever. They have such a timeless quality that many have assumed they were folk songs. Years after his tragic story became known – how he wrote most of his best songs in a period of ten years and died at age 38 with 37 cents in his pocket – he became a figure of American myth.
He was not, as legend has it, an untutored genius who dashed off miracles of melody in flashes of divine inspiration. He came from a solid middle-class family in Pennsylvania where he was schooled in private academies, had some formal music study, and labored long hours over his scores, often agonizing over the minutest details. This is not to say he was not precocious: his first song, “Open Thy Lattice Love,” was published when he was 18. He was 20 when he had his first hit, “Oh! Susanna,” although he realized only $100 for it. The absence of enforceable copyright for his songs meant royalties were rare.
“Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River”) was the biggest success of his lifetime. It was felt that this was the definitive lyrical expression of longing for the Old South, and yet, Foster had been there only briefly, once, on his honeymoon. Scores of other heartfelt songs, including “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Hard Times Come Again No More,” “Camptown Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer” continue to touch listeners in their original versions and in countless fine choral arrangements.
A Stephen Foster Medley
Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming
Hard Times Come Again No More
Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair
Three Portraits by Stephen Foster