The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Around MHS

Making Music, Making History

Over the last four hundred years Boston has nurtured the creation and performance of numerous musical genres. Distinguished by the breadth and intensity of its musical life, Boston has been home to talented and influential composers, conductors and performers; world-class orchestras and conservatories; and community music societies representing a broad range of musical genres. Located in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, the MHS is literally surrounded by several premier musical institutions. In addition to sharing walls with two of these institutions, (Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory) the MHS also counts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New England Conservatory, the Handel and Haydn Society, and Boston University School of Music as its near neighbors. Over the next several months the MHS will offer several public programs that bring Boston’s history makers and music makers together, using music as a lens to investigate Boston’s history.

Our goal is to introduce fans of music to the history behind some of their favorite songs, venues, and performers, and to the local, national, and even global historical context of specific musical moments. We also want to expose our devoted corps of intellectually curious adults to a new way of investigating Boston’s past. We will begin with two programs in spring 2013. On 13 March, prize-winning author Megan Marshall will offer insights from her newest book Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, her biography of the 19th-century heroine who spent her last years in Rome and Florence as a war correspondent covering the early stages of Italy’s Risorgimento. Folk ensemble Newpoli will be on hand to conjure the vibrant music that Fuller came to love as emblematic of Italy. Together with the audience, Ms. Marshall and Newpoli will discuss what music can tell us about Fuller’s life in Italy and how Italian history was presented and commemorated in nineteenth-century America.

On 29 May, we will collaborate with Berklee professor Peter Cokkinias and the Boston Saxophone Quartet to explore the music of the Civil War era. This two-hour program will feature familiar tunes from the 1860s that were sung around the parlor piano, as well as songs written specifically for the newest instrument of the era: the saxophone. The Quartet will also perform several pieces composed by Patrick Gilmore, the band leader who established the concert band as an American institution and removed music from the home and concert hall to the parade ground and bandstand. In the early years of the Civil War, Gilmore’s band became attached to the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, accompanying the troops to North Carolina in 1861–1862. Audience members will sing along to familiar camps songs and discuss the role of musicians in the Civil War.

Planning is also underway for a third program, which will take audiences out in the field to experience musical venues in the fall of 2013. Our “Tempos of Turbulence” walking tour will immerse participants in the music of the Society’s Back Bay neighborhood. We will focus our tour narrative on stories that demonstrate how the creation and enjoyments of music in early twentieth-century Boston were intertwined with larger, political, cultural, and social issues. For example, at Berklee College of Music, participants will learn about the founding of the institution in 1945, and why its creator, composer Lee Berk, chose to focus on training musicians in jazz, blues, and other forms of American popular music in the years after World War II. At Symphony Hall, we will hear examples of works by German, Austrian, and Hungarian composers, which dominated the repertoires of symphonies in cities like Boston in the years prior to WWI, and explore (visually and aurally) American responses to this music in the years during and after the war.  Just across the street from Symphony Hall, a block of jazz clubs dominated Massachusetts Avenue in the 1940s.  We will use these “lost” venues to discuss the influence of black culture on the music scene in mid-century Boston, as well as the moment when jazz music began to spread from the African American community to clubs attended by an ethnic and economic cross-section of the population.

You too can experience theses musical moments at the MHS! Visit our web calendar to learn more about upcoming events and how to reserve your spot on the guest list. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 1:00 AM

Ellen Coolidge Meets Charles Babbage, 1839

In 1838, Ellen Wayles Coolidge, granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, arrived in London for a visit that would last nearly a year and fill four notebooks with Ellen’s sharp and witty observations. Ellen and her husband, Joseph Coolidge, Jr., gained entry to some of the most coveted drawing rooms of the time, and Ellen candidly recorded her impressions of the illustrious people she met.

One such person was Charles Babbage, the mathematician, inventor, and author celebrated today as the father of computing for his design of mechanical computers that he called the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. Babbage held Saturday-evening parties of London’s elite, which Coolidge attended twice. She writes on 18 February 1839 of the previous Saturday’s gathering,

Here was a gathering of the elect, a ‘re-union’ of literary & scientific men, artists, authors, celebrities of both sexes. Those who like myself had no claim of learning or letters for admittance into so choice an assembly, could only rejoice in the opportunity of seeing so many Lions in one cage. We had, Mr Babbage himself the inventor of the famous calculating machine. . .

But for all the rejoicing they might have caused, these gatherings also inspired some choice words on English manners. On 21 February 1839, Coolidge writes,

The persons . . . whom I meet in society have all, more or less, the same style of manners and of dress, and their ordinary conversation is pitched nearly in the same key. They vary because Nature has put it out of their power to conform in all things to a given standard, but they vary as little as they can. This, in general society, produces a certain amount of insipidity, a want of heartiness, or earnestness, of any sort of warmth or glow. At [Babbage’s] saturday evening parties, where so many political, literary, scientific & artistic characters assemble, I should say that the distinguishing mark was want of all character for good or evil. . . . [I]t seems a pity that Babbage, Hallam, Whewell, Wilkie &c &c should move about requiring . . . to have labels pinned to their backs, in order to tell one from another.

Do you see why earlier I described her observations as “sharp”?

Ellen Coolidge’s diary of the trip—edited by Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla and co-published by the MHS and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 2011 as Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838–1839—is being reprinted in paperback as we speak and will be released in April 2013, just in time for Thomas Jefferson’s 13 April birthday.

comments: 3 | permalink | Published: Friday, 22 February, 2013, 8:00 AM

Happy Birthday, MHS!

Today marks the 222nd anniversary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the nation's oldest historical society.  The Historical Society (being the only one, there was no need for the Massachusetts in the name at the time of our founding) had its first official meeting in the comfortable home of William Tudor in downtown Boston.  Only eight of the ten founding members -- the ten being James Sullivan, William Tudor, John Eliot, Peter Thacher, James Winthrop,  George Richards Minot, Thomas Wallcut, Reverend James Freeman Clark, Dr. William Baylies, and Reverend Jeremy Belknap --  attended that first meeting. At that meeting they selected officers, developed a constitution, and set the maximum number of members at 30 resident members and 30 corresponding members. 

As laid out in a circular letter first disseminated in the fall of 1791, Jeremy Belknap, the catalyst behind the formation of the Society, envisioned both a repository and a publication program -- an institution that would collect, preserve, and disseminate resources for the study of American history.The collection, which today boasts over 12 million pages of manuscript documents in addtion to thousands upon thousands of published items, photographs, and artifacts, began at that first meeting through pledges of family papers, books, and artifacts from the founding members personal collections. And with the appearance of their first title at the start of 1792, volume 1 of the still published Collections of the Massachusetts HIstorical Society, they also made the MHS the nation's first institution of any description to publish in its field.

We are proud to say that 222 years later the MHS is still an active repository and publisher.  Our collection continues to grow and supports the work of thousands of researchers every year, who access our holdings through visiting our library, exploring our website, reading our publications (and the many publications that result from the work of our researchers), and corresponding with our staff members. 

Wishing a very happy birthday to the MHS -- and many, many more. 



**For more on the history of the MHS, see Louis Leonard Tucker's The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791 - 1991 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1995).



comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 8:00 AM

The MHS Tweets!

The Massachusetts Historical Society is proud to announce the launch of a new organization-wide Twitter account: @MHS1791. After the success of the John Quincy Adams line-a-day diary tweets, we have similarly high hopes for this venture, which will feature historical tidbits, news on events and happenings, and behind-the-scenes glimpses. We are thrilled to engage in this new way with other historical and cultural institutions, as well as scholars, educators, researchers, visitors, and history enthusiasts. Join the conversation! Follow the Society at @MHS1791. Looking for other ways to interact with the MHS? Follow @JQAdams_MHS to keep up with the Adamses, visit out Facebook page, or check out other posts on the blog.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 3 January, 2013, 8:00 AM

Massachusetts Historical Review Volume 14 on Its Way

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: that time when a new volume of the Massachusetts Historical Review goes to press! Print subscribers will receive Volume 14 by mail in the early days of the new year, and the electronic version will be published simultaneously through JSTOR’s Current Scholarship Program. Learn more about subscription here. The journal is also a benefit of MHS membership—learn more about membership here!

The upcoming volume treats a diversity of fascinating topics:

“Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic” by Amalie M. Kass
Cotton Mather’s advocacy for inoculation—a practice then unheard of in the colonies—stirred up a controversy in 18th-century Boston. Insults and accusations flew in the partisan newspapers as inoculation’s champions and opponents fought for public health—and personal glory. The source of Mather’s knowledge of inoculation may surprise you.

“The Newbury Prayer Bill Hoax: Devotion and Deception in New England’s Era of Great Awakenings” by Douglas L. Winiarski
This article explores the phenomenon of the prayer bill or prayer note in colonial religious practices, and how a satirical prayer bill was crafted to injure the reputation of Newbury Congregational minister Rev. Christopher Toppan, who vehemently opposed the popular religious revivals of the Great Awakening.

“A Prince among Pretending Free Men: Runaway Slaves in Colonial New England Revisited” by Antonio T. Bly
Bly sheds light on the lives and characteristics of runaway slaves through in-depth analysis and explication of runaway notices in newspapers. Clues within these notices tell us how fugitive slaves employed quick wits and savvy under extraordinary duress. Bly, who has compiled a database of runaway slave notices, crunches the numbers on a variety of characteristics, illuminating the most common months for escape, the race, linguistic ability, and work backgrounds of runaways, and more.

“Boston, the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, and the Poncas” by Valerie Sherer Mathes
When the Ponca Indians of Nebraska were forced from their homeland in 1877 and sent to the inhospitable Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), many Americans sympathized with their plight. Among those who took up the cause was the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee, a group of philanthropists, described in detail for the first time in this article. Mathes also chronicles the speaking tours in support of the Poncas, including the tour of Ponca chief Standing Bear.

The new volume also includes review articles by Sarah Phillips and Chernoh Sesay concerning environmental history and books about Phillis Wheatley and Venture Smith, respectively.

Every issue of the MHR offers pieces rich in narrative detail and thoughtful analysis, and Volume 14 is no different. The MHS looks forward to its publication.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 30 November, 2012, 1:00 AM

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