Jefferson Plays

One of Thomas Jefferson's favorite compositions was the Sonata for Violin and Continuo, Opus 5, written by the famous Italian composer, Archangelo Corelli (1653-1713) in 1700. It consisted of a set of twenty variations on a graceful old Spanish tune called (in Italian) La Follia—pronounced la fo-LEE-ah, and meaning something like "A Madness," presumably a musical definition of love.

The well-thumbed and copiously annotated copy of the music in his library suggests that, at least prior to his wrist injury in 1786, Jefferson was capable of performing the difficult bowings required in many of the twenty elaborate variations of the simple theme.

Using a German-made instrument dating from the second half of the 18th century, as well as a modern violin such as Jefferson owned, violinist Samuel Taylor plays the theme and two of the variations from Corelli's composition. He also discusses and demonstrates several differences between the styles of playing typically used by fiddlers such as Pierre Cruzatte in the vernacular tradition, and cultivated-tradition violinists such as Thomas Jefferson.1

I. Molto Espressivo

Man holding a violin
Hear Example

II. Tuning Up

Man preparing to play a violin
Hear Example

III. Different Strokes

Man playing a violin
Hear Example

1. The term sonata,from the Italian verb sonare, "to sound," began to be used in the 17th century to refer to a composition for instruments, as opposed to a cantata, from the Italian verb cantare, "to sing," which denoted a composition for voices. The word continuo stood for the accompaniment to the solo violin, which consisted of a keyboard instrument such as a harpsichord—or later, piano—plus a low stringed instrument such as a gamba. The word gamba (Italian for leg) is short for viola da gamba, a small bass viol of the Baroque Era that was placed between the player's legs, like a modern cello. The bow was held with an underhand, palm-up grip.

Recommended Books:

Sandor Salgo, Thomas Jefferson, Musician & Violinist. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2000.

Helen Cripe, Thomas Jefferson and Music. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974.