Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864)
The history of western music in the 19th Century includes many chapters on great European composers who sadly died “too young”. Enormous fascination exists for Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Mendelssohn, none of whom saw their fortieth birthdays. However, whilst the music of these Austrian, Polish and German composers is intrinsically connected by the popular styles of music which preceded them, the United States at this time produced a composer whose style was arguably far more unique and, eventually, equally far-reaching. Stephen Collins Foster similarly died aged just 37.
Born into a relatively comfortable household (with nine siblings) in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, he received a rounded and traditional education. However, this did not include any formal musical training and, having developed a great love for music, the young boy embarked upon teaching himself to play several musical instruments and, more importantly, to compose. He later had a number of scholarly failings and it was clear that he was destined for a musical, rather than an academic, career.
Following an 1846 move to Cincinnati, Ohio, his compositional style began to take shape. A number of songs from this early period went on to become some of his best-loved works. He married in 1850 and returned to Pennsylvania, this time to Pittsburgh. It was here that his most prolific period began. By 1855 he was a well-known songwriter and successful musician, although early signs of a somewhat chaotic lifestyle, a dependency on alcohol and frequent marital problems were beginning to show. By 1861 these problems had intensified and, despite earlier success, he was struggling both emotionally and financially. A move to New York City did little to help and, following illness and a hotel room accident, the ‘father of American music’ died in January 1864.
Musical Style and Influences
The music of Stephen Collins Foster was influenced and guided by events and cultural opinions of the day. A number of songs were inspired by the California Gold Rush, the most widely-recognized being “Oh! Susanna” which became nothing less than an anthem of the era. He would later try his hand at the more martial musical style which surrounded the American Civil War. His works were also strongly associated with the ‘minstrel’ shows which were popular at the time.
It is no secret that he wrote a great deal of music for use in such shows, which were generally intended to mock the African American race. Closer study also reveals that he actively attempted to bring about change in public opinion, encouraging more understanding and compassion towards African Americans.
What was Stephen Collins Foster Known For?
The Music of Stephen Collins Foster
Perhaps most remarkable is the influence that his music would have over the next century. In the USA his work became increasingly used in the field of early education, and this soon spread internationally.
Therefore songs such as “Campdown Races”, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” (composed for his wife, Jane) and “Swanee River” quickly became favorites around the world.
Stephen Collins Foster Most Famous Works
In the 20th Century his songs inspired hundreds of musicians, writers and filmmakers. In 1928 “My Old Kentucky Home” was adopted as the official state song of Kentucky.
Like a number of his European counterparts who had great music published posthumously, his beloved song “Beautiful Dreamer” was only given to the world after his untimely death in 1864. This song has since seen variations played on different instruments like piano, brass, and guitar. In fact, there is a music book that has several Foster guitar lesson transcriptions of his works, so you can learn them on guitar.