Jefferson the Violinist

Minuets of the Canadians (1807)

George Heriot (ca. 1759-1839)

Historical etching dancing the minuet

Etching and aquatint, handcolored with watercolor
National Archives of Canada, Ottawa (Accession No. 1989-479-3)

As part of his early education—a gentleman's education—Thomas Jefferson learned to read music and to play the violin, and by age fourteen he was capable of writing down his favorite fiddle tunes. Many years later he recalled that as a young man he regularly practiced three hours a day. Unfortunately, he fractured his right wrist in 1786, and his playing was severely curtailed thereafter.

The large library of music he eventually collected, contained works by old masters such as Vivaldi (d. 1741), Corelli (d. 1713), and Handel (d. 1759), plus works by contemporary composers such as Carlo Campioni (1720-1788) and Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). In addition, there were books of popular songs, and a few volumes of psalms, hymns, and anthems.

During his lifetime he owned several violins, the finest of which may have been an Amati, made in Cremona, Italy in the 17th century.2 Also, there were harpsichords, fortepianos and guitars in his household, but they were primarily ladies' instruments.

While he was in Paris during the 1780s Jefferson may have purchased a bow by François Tourte (pronounced toort; 1747-1835), which represented a significant change in the mechanics of bow design, and has remained the accepted standard ever since. The inverted bend in the stick makes possible an even pressure between bow-hair and string through the whole stroke, which made it easier to play the long lyrical melodies and intricate, wide-ranging allegros of the music of Corelli and Haydn.

Thomas Jefferson's younger brother, Randolph, who as a youth also studied the violin, was more inclined toward the vernacular idiom. According to Isaac, a family slave, Randolph "used to come out among the black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night."3

Cruzatte's fiddle probably sounded unlike Thomas Jefferson's violin, and their playing styles would have differed, too. The following video clips show some examples of their respective styles and techniques.

1. George Heriot was born in Scotland in 1759, He emigrated to Quebec in 1792, and in 1799 became postmaster general of British North America. Heriot traveled extensively throughout Canada, producing numerous scenic sketches and watercolors that were widely admired for their documentary value. He published a book, Travels through the Canadas, in 1808.

2. Meriwether Lewis probably never heard his President play the violin, because Jefferson had fractured his right wrist in a fall, in Paris in 1786.

3. Isaac Jefferson, "Memoirs of a Monticello Slave," in Jefferson at Monticello, ed. James A. Bear, Jr. (Charlottesville, Virginia, 1967), 22.

Recommended Books:

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

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