Foster: Pioneering American Composer.
On Jan. 13, 2004, The Center for American Music along
with Allegheny Cemetery and the University of Pittsburgh's Department of
Theatre Arts commemorated the 140th anniversary of Stephen Foster's death
with a number of special events.
It would not be appropriate to regard Stephen Foster
as anything less than a great pioneer of American music composition.
He created in his lifetime what would become some of the world’s
most popular music for the next century and a half to follow. If he had
access to today’s copyright laws and publishing network, Foster would be
earning millions a year, but in his day he would only see profits from the
direct sales of his sheet music ( 5 – 10 cents a sheet ) or from the
outright sale of a song to a publisher. Foster kept extensive records of
his business. His contracts, written out in his own hand are examples of
the earliest ones known to exist between American music publishers and
individual songwriters. He died financially broke at the age of 37, but he
left behind a priceless legacy.
More than just a successful songwriter, Stephen
Foster had a purpose; to reform a style of entertainment that had already
taken a strong hold on American popular culture: the black-face minstrel
show. In his own words, he
wanted to "build up taste...among refined people by making words
suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words
which belong to some songs of that order.”
Foster also studied the different ethnic music and poetic styles
prevalent among the new immigrant populations of the United States as
well. He wanted to write music using images and a musical vocabulary that
would be widely understood by all groups. He sought to humanize the
characters in his songs, to have them care for one another, and to convey
a sense that all people--regardless of their ethnic identities or social
and economic class--share the same longings and needs for family and home.
Although he was exploited by the entrepreneurs of his
day, and modern public opinion is sometimes misdirected against him out of
politically correct ignorance, we must always remember the spirit of
Foster’s work, and forever marvel at the beauty and elegance of his
words and music.
For more details on the life of Stephen Foster and
his music, please visit the website for the Center For American Music.