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Creative team behind 'String Playing in Jefferson's Virginia' finds a way for the show to go on

During the 1840s, Eston Hemings was in demand as a fiddler and bandleader in Chillicothe, Ohio — far from his upbringing in slavery at Monticello. But one of the trademark songs he was known to share with appreciative audiences was “Money Musk,” a traditional tune he likely learned at the Albemarle County estate.

Thomas Jefferson’s music collection at Monticello includes sheet music for “Money Musk” in the third president’s own handwriting; a snippet of the music, performed by Pete Vigour, can be heard at And during “The Jefferson Project: String Playing in Jefferson’s Virginia,” Facebook Live viewers can learn more about the song, the musician and all kinds of Monticello connections.

The concert, originally scheduled for 4 p.m. March 29 in Monticello’s Jefferson Library, was one of many local events canceled to help protect people from exposure to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus and help prevent its spread. Baroque violinist David McCormick and viola da gamba player Loren Ludwig then made plans to stream their performance March 30 online, but that didn’t work out, either.

Luckily for string music fans and scholars, and thanks to germ-proof technology and Facebook Live, the show will go on.

The concert is the first in a series of four planned by the Jefferson Project, a collaborative effort by the Early Music Access Project and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society to shed light on the role music played in the lives of Jefferson, his family, the enslaved residents of his estate and the wider community of their day.

“This is the result of a fellowship Loren and I have at the [Robert H. Smith] International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello,” said McCormick, who is artistic director of Early Music Access Project and executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival.

The rest of the fellowship period is on hold at the moment, but the concert series will give people a glimpse of where McCormick’s and Ludwig’s scholarship has taken them so far. The program will include violin sonatas from the president’s own collection, folk tunes played by Jefferson and Hemings and viola da gamba selections from the James River Music Book.

“Jefferson was an avid collector of music,” McCormick said. “Jefferson was a violin player, his wife was a keyboard player, and his daughters and granddaughters all played instruments,” including guitar and keyboard instruments.

McCormick also is researching the music that Monticello’s enslaved workers would have played and enjoyed, which is not as easily traced in light of the passage of time and fewer written references. Hemings’ success as a professional musician in Ohio, however, was well documented, as was the fact that both of his brothers also played the fiddle.

Hemings, who later changed his surname to Jefferson, “basically was the most popular fiddler in Chillicothe, Ohio, for decades,” McCormick said.

Music lovers in Jefferson’s day didn’t have the conveniences of downloading or photocopying sheet music or the luxury of assembling playlists. The only way for most people to build collections of tunes they wanted to play again and share was to copy the sheet music by hand, which was a painstaking process.

Some of the hand-copied works in Jefferson’s collection were penned precisely and confidently, while others clearly were done by beginners.

“You could see where a younger member of the family was copying music and making mistakes,” McCormick said.

Violin sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi are among the pieces in Jefferson’s collection. Copies of sheet music would have been shared and handed down by family members, and McCormick found evidence while examining some of Jefferson’s music.

In one piece kept at the University of Virginia, “you can see markings made in the music,” he said. But instead of fingerings or bowing instructions for a violinist to follow, “you looked closely, and it was keyboard fingerings. His wife and daughters were playing this violin music on keyboards.”

Scholars also have a good grasp of the music Jefferson was listening to during his time in France. A list was kept of concerts he attended to help keep track of how much he was spending on them, McCormick said. “There were very few opportunities in the colonies to hear this music live,” he said.

Listeners also will be able to learn more about Ludwig’s research into the James River Music Book, a manuscript that offers rare documentation of viola da gamba music in colonial Virginia.

“What he discovered in this manuscript is that someone had written out some viola da gamba music,” McCormick said. “There hasn’t been much evidence of viola da gamba music being popular in the colonies.”

The concert remains free of charge, but the new format can help it reach many more people.

“We’ve put in a lot of work, and what I’ve found is that people want to hear music while they’re stuck at home,” McCormick said.


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