A Sweet Musical Instrument

The journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition contain references to some thirty occasions when the men turned to song and dance for their own recreation, or to entertain and impress the Indian people they met.

The idea of celebrating a new round of seasons in the dead of winter must have excited great wonder among the Indians in the vicinity of Fort Mandan, but some of the men of the Corps of Discovery were delighted with the opportunity to share their Southern-style New Year's festivities. So, at about nine in the morning on January 1, 1805, fifteen of them set off for the nearby Mandan village. They took with them, reported Sergeant John Ordway, "a fiddle & a Tambereen & a Sounden horn."

In his first dictionary, published in 1806 while the Corps of Discovery was still on the road, Noah Webster defined violin in four simple words: "A sweet musical instrument."1

photo of a violin

The violin evolved in Europe during the Renaissance (between about 1450 and 1600), in the vernacular ("popular") musical tradition, to provide music for dancing, often out-of-doors. Early in the 17th century it became the mainstay of instrumental ensembles in the cultivated ("classical") idioms, the opera and the sinfonia, which then were performed in the small private salons of the aristocracy. In the vernacular tradition the instrument retained its older name, fiddle; in the cultivated tradition it was called a violin.

It reached its first peak of general popularity in Western culture during the late 18th century. Around 1800, in the vicinity of just one southeastern German town, Klingenthal, eighty-five violin-makers (luthiers) produced an average of thirty-six thousand instruments a year, while a comparable number of cottage craftspersons produced strings and bows. Many other cities and towns throughout Europe were equally productive, and part of their total output was exported to North America for its relatively large number of dance musicians, and its less numerous but equally sincere devotees of the cultivated tradition.

Fiddlers like Pierre Cruzatte played popular dance tunes—most of them of unknown origin—by ear, and probably had comparatively limited repertoires. Violinists like Thomas Jefferson played, by note, the latest published works by famous composers, as well as those of the old masters. To call a violinist a fiddler was considered uncomplimentary, although some "gentlemen amateurs," such as Jefferson, were at least somewhat acquainted with the popular idioms.

Thomas Jefferson's violin, his playing style, and his favorite type of music, would have differed in many respects from Cruzatte's. We shall consider Jefferson first, and hear one of his favorite pieces. Then we'll introduce Pierre Cruzatte.

1. A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806; Facsimile, New York: Crown Publishers, 1970).