Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ben Franklin – folk cello aficionado

Maynard’s mentioned James Oswald. In case you’ve never heard of that famed cellist, let me you about him, by way of Benjamin Franklin.

Since I was seven years-old I’ve admired and wanted to be like ol’ Ben (Hey, I’m from Philly, what would you expect --- all the sports teams were in the cellar through the entire 60’s.)

Now, for much of his life, Ben Franklin was a Londoner wannabe. He was enthralled with all things English, and with London, his perceived center of the cultural Universe. In 1757, after becoming a wildly successful businessman; postmaster; inventor; brilliant scientist; highly acclaimed author and publisher; founder of fire and insurance companies, libraries and numerous organizations for the public good; lead perhaps the first environmental protest ever; recipient of at least three honorary doctorates, and only the most famous American, by far, the world over, Dr. Franklin traveled to London to represent his home, the ever loyal American colonies. He was considering staying in London permanently.

London was not impressed with this uppity commoner, but then soon, neither was Franklin with London, who saw the aristocratic system there as hopelessly corrupt. By 1774, he would be publicly condemned and humiliated before London's Privy Council. The next day he fled England convinced that the colonies must become an independent nation, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But back to music. Franklin was fortunate enough, by our standards, to have heard G.F. Handel’s last concert. He didn’t care for it. Too much repetition. He felt it was indicative of a lack of intelligence.

But he was very impressed indeed with a different court composer – James Oswald. Oswald was an import to the court from Scotland. In addition to composing, Oswald played cello, and collected and published folk tunes of his homeland (They are still available, I have his book “A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes” in PDF format). In a letter to Lord Kames, Franklin remarked that when a musician named James Oswald played tunes on his cello, the crowds fell in love with it so much that he witnessed "tears of pleasure in the eyes of his auditors".

But don’t just believe me, go to http://www.whyy.org/artsandculture/stories.html , do a Find on Franklin, and listen to two of Franklin’s favorite Oswald tunes, one of which is performed beautifully on solo viola da gamba.

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