Friday, July 19, 2013

Mark Twain on the Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Letters Of Mark Twain, Volume 4, 1886-1900. Ed. Albert Bigelow Payne. [Rpt. ____: Harper, 1917.]
To Rev. J. H. Twichell, in Hartford:

LUCERNE, Aug. 22, '97.

DEAR JOE,—Livy made a noble find on the Lucerne boat the other day on one of her shopping trips—George Williamson Smith—did I tell you about it? We had a lovely time with him, and such intellectual refreshment as we had not tasted in many a month.

And the other night we had a detachment of the jubilee Singers—6. I had known one of them in London 24 years ago. Three of the 6 were born in slavery, the others were children of slaves. How charming they were—in spirit, manner, language, pronunciation, enunciation, grammar, phrasing, matter, carriage, clothes—in every detail that goes to make the real lady and gentleman, and welcome guest. We went down to the village hotel and bought our tickets and entered the beer-hall, where a crowd of German and Swiss men and women sat grouped at round tables with their beer mugs in front of them—self-contained and unimpressionable looking people, an indifferent and unposted and disheartened audience—and up at the far end of the room sat the Jubilees in a row. The Singers got up and stood—the talking and glass jingling went on. Then rose and swelled out above those common earthly sounds one of those rich chords the secret of whose make only the Jubilees possess, and a spell fell upon that house. It was fine to see the faces light up with the pleased wonder and surprise of it. No one was indifferent any more; and when the singers finished, the camp was theirs. It was a triumph. It reminded me of Launcelot riding in Sir Kay's armor and astonishing complacent Knights who thought they had struck a soft thing. The Jubilees sang a lot of pieces. Arduous and painstaking cultivation has not diminished or artificialized their music, but on the contrary—to my surprise—has mightily reinforced its eloquence and beauty. Away back in the beginning—to my mind—their music made all other vocal music cheap; and that early notion is emphasized now. It is utterly beautiful, to me; and it moves me infinitely more than any other music can. I think that in the Jubilees and their songs America has produced the perfectest flower of the ages; and I wish it were a foreign product, so that she would worship it and lavish money on it and go properly crazy over it.

Now, these countries are different: they would do all that, if it were native. It is true they praise God, but that is merely a formality, and nothing in it; they open out their whole hearts to no foreigner.

The musical critics of the German press praise the Jubilees with great enthusiasm—acquired technique etc, included.

One of the jubilee men is a son of General Joe Johnson, and was educated by him after the war. The party came up to the house and we had a pleasant time.

This is paradise, here—but of course we have got to leave it by and by. The 18th of August—[Anniversary of Susy Clemens's death.]—has come and gone, Joe—and we still seem to live.

With love from us all.


Also available on line, in the Mark Twain Project, a letter from MT to Theodore F. Seward [music director for the singers at the time], March 8, 1875. MT requests "John Brown's Body" in a concert at Harford just before their second European tour and adds:
I remember hearing them in concert an afternoon in London, when their “John Brown’s Body” took a decorous, aristocratic English audience by surprise & threw them into a volcanic eruption of applause before they knew what they were about. I never saw anything finer than their enthusiasm.
Good explanatory notes, with more info, at;style=letter;brand=mtp

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