Music in Thomas Jefferson’s Library



The first episode I wrote for Harmonia, during the Summer of 2006, was on the music which Thomas Jefferson owned, a rich collection full of well-known and obscure composers.

For the program, I relied on an excellent modern publicationSandor Salgo’s Thomas Jefferson, musician and violinist—that looks at the musical side of a man known primarily as one of America’s founding fathers and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

If you haven’t read Salgo’s book, it is worth taking time out to explore (you won’t imagine Jefferson in the same way again).

I was reminded not long ago about Jefferson’s love of music and his music collection when I discovered that several catalogs of his libraries are accessible online, including ones from 1783 (Monticello), 1789 (Monticello, books acquired while abroad), 1815 (sold to the Library of Congress and compiled in 1942), 1823 (Retirement Catalog), and 1829 (Poor Catalog).

The most interesting one for me is the earliest from 1783. And while it isn’t a record of the first library he owned (it burned down), but of the second, it is fascinating to see the kinds of music books he treasured.

Music is separated into three sections—theory, vocal, and instrumental.

As with other parts of the catalog, Jefferson was meticulous. I particularly enjoy looking over what he calls his “theory” books (see below). They are, in fact, more than just about music theory and cover history, travel, instruction, and composition.

Jefferson was clearly a remarkable man whose love of music was all encompassing. He enjoyed playing music on the violin as much, it seems, as he wanted to understand it. The many library catalogs that survive are the strongest evidence of how important music really was to him.

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