Music at Antebellum Centenary: From “scraping bows” and “greasy fiddles” to “music of admirable time and expression”

“On motion it was resolved that the faculty be requested to induce the students to form a musical band to be under its direction which shall be composed exclusively of performers from among themselves.”
(Minutes of the Board of Trustees, Centenary College of Louisiana, July 30, 1850)

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Prior to the first music classes of 1852, music for enjoyment, worship, or ceremony undoubtedly graced the campuses of Centenary College of Louisiana and its predecessors. For example, in 1838, the faculty of the College of Louisiana heard the case of two students who drew knives and
fought savagely after a dispute that involved one student disturbing his downstairs neighbor with his “fiddleing” practice during study hours.1 In 1850, the Board of Trustees laid the foundation for a formal music program at Centenary when they resolved that “the faculty be requested to induce the students to form a musical band….”2

In 1852, Centenary welcomed its first music professor, A.E. Blackmar, hailed as “a gentleman of high moral worth, and a musician of universal genius.”3 The Trustees resolved that he would receive no salary, depending solely on the music tuition charges that the faculty would approve.4 Professor Blackmar quickly won the favor of many members of the Centenary community at the multi-day commencement exercises of 1852. Performances of Blackmar’s instrumental and vocal ensembles offered a welcomed change of pace to hot and tired audience members who endured a barrage of speeches in both English and Latin (including honorary degree recipient Charles Gayarré’s one-hour impromptu address).5

The solemn charm of the occasion was not even broken by the “music.” Usually at Commencements the first note of the scraping bow quite dissipates the moral and the intellectual. Four or five red faces and greasy fiddles—looking like a tattered remnant of the Old Guard—have, time out of mind, constituted the sauce of these literary feasts. On this occasion the exercises were relieved alternately by a choir of ladies and students, an orchestra, and a brass band, both composed exclusively of College students, under the conduct of Mr. A.E. Blackmar. The orchestra consisted of nine violins, four flutes, and a clarinet; the brass band of twelve horns, a piccolo and drum. I noticed that several of the graduating class were performers. The music was of admirable time and expression, though the students have been practicing only since February last. Two years ago the Trustees voted that such a band, if possible, be formed, and money appropriated to purchase instruments. This year they have constituted a choir of vocal and instrumental music, and have elected Mr. A.E. Blackmar Professor.6

Shortly after this fulsome praise appeared in the New Orleans Christian Advocate, the paper ran an advertisement detailing the expenses for Centenary’s next session. Instruction in music was, and would long remain, optional study that could be elected at extra cost.

Expenses: September 1852
Tuition per Session of ten months $ 50.00
Room Rent $5.00
Contingencies $3.00
Use of Library $3.00
Total of College Charges $ 61.00
Tuition in Preparatory Deparment $ 40.00
Board and Washing per month $10.00
Tuition in Musical Department, (extra) Flute,
Violin, Guitar, Clarinet, Violoncello, etc. per month 6.00
Vocal Music per month $2.00
Band or Orchestra, per month $3.00
Thorough Bass or Instrumentation $6.00

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At the 1853 commencement, Centenary’s new music department again garnered great acclaim. Any description that leaves out the music that regaled the Commencement, would be unfair and imperfect. The college, at its own expense, ordered, two years ago, the purchase of instruments for a full brass band, and elected a competent gentleman, Mr. Blackmar—well designated in the catalogue as professor—to superintend and instruct in this department. That, from such young and raw material he can and has trained such an orchestra and brass band, is astonishing. The students make their own music, and it not only enlivens and adorns their public exhibitions, but it is to them personally no mean accomplishment and development. There is in this the useful and beautiful. It struck us, and we believe everybody as, “a thing that ought to be.”7

Though Professor Blackmar resigned officially in 1855,8 Centenary’s musical offerings continued. An 1855 program shows that Professors Kroll and Hebestreet led the 1855 College Brass Band in a “Grand Concert” followed by a fireworks display. However, fireworks of another kind—sparked by sectional and political tensions—soon swept across the nation. The 18619 resignation of W.J. Crerar, Professor of Vocal and Instrumental Music since 1858,10 was of little consequence. The first shots of the Civil War rang out at Fort Sumpter in April of 1861, and the Minutes of the Board of Trustees from October 7, 1861 succinctly described the College’s situation: Students have all gone to war. College suspended and God help the right!