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President George Washington dancing the minuet at his inaugural ball, as shown on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, May 11, 1889

President George Washington dancing the minuet at his inaugural ball, as shown on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, May 11, 1889. Library of Congress
1790s

Before the White House was completed in 1800, President George Washington and his wife Martha lived first in New York City, then Philadelphia. Washington enjoyed the theater and liked to dance, especially the minuet, which he danced with great pleasure at his inaugural ball. Music in the president’s home was an intimate amusement and young Nelly Custis, the president’s musical stepgrandaughter, entertained guests by playing the instruments the president purchased for her. These included a fine five-octave, two manual harpsichord from London and a Dodds pianoforte, one of the first pianos built in America. Musical instruments were among the earliest items purchased for The President’s House and illustrate the importance music played in early American home life.

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 3-8.





Invitation from President and Mrs. John Adams sent to members of the Congress, judiciary, diplomatic community, and general public. The Marine Band made its White House debut at this dinner reception on New Year's Day, 1801

Invitation from President and Mrs. John Adams sent to members of the Congress, judiciary, diplomatic community, and general public. The Marine Band made its White House debut at this dinner reception on New Year's Day, 1801. The White House
1800s

President and Mrs. John Adams were the first occupants of the White House in the nation’s new capital, the City of Washington. Shortly after moving into the mansion in November 1800, the Adams’s invited the young United States Marine Band, consisting of only eight or ten musicians, to play at their first reception on New Years Day, 1801. This event established the tradition of the Marine Band’s performances at the White House that exists to the present day and has earned the organization the title, "The President’s Own." On July 4, 1806, the band performed also for President Thomas Jefferson, a fine amateur violinist and music lover, rendering the song "To Anacreon in Heaven" (or "The Anacreontic Song"). Eight years later this popular tune received new lyrics by Francis Scott Key, becoming immortalized as "The Star-Spangled Banner," and in 1931, President Hoover made the song America’s official national anthem.

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 13-14.


Landmark Era Performance  ›  1801: The United States Marine Band performs at the first White House public reception on New Years Day.





LePelletier’s Journal of Musick, 1810

LePelletier’s Journal of Musick, 1810. Library of Congress
1810s

Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, was one of early America’s most gracious hostesses. Through Benjamin Latrobe, she purchased a piano for the White House for $450 that was of "superior tone in strength and sweetness." She also purchased the earliest collection of music for the White House. Printed in Philadelphia in 1810, Madame Le Pelletier’s elegantly engraved Journal of Musick is an important reflection of French influence in an American culture still dominated by English practices. Along with Italian and English songs and piano works, the collection contains many pieces by French composers, such as Isouard, Berton, Catel, Mehul and Boieldieu with representative arias from their operas virtually unknown in America at this time. Illustrating the rare efforts of a woman composer in early America, several of the selections are composed by Mme. Pelletier herself, including an interesting set of variations, "Fantaisie sur un Air Russe." Both the piano and the original White House edition of the music were destroyed when the British set fire to the mansion on August 24, 1814.

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 17-18.





Sheet music from The Lady of the Lake, c. 1812

Sheet music from The Lady of the Lake, c. 1812. Music Division, Library of Congress
1820s

Both John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine, were great devotees of music, and often sang ballads and arias together, while Louisa played the White House American-made Babcock piano, now housed in the Smithsonian Institution. At one of the decade’s most important historic events -- the ground-breaking ceremony for the excavation of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1828 -- the Marine Band played, among other selections, the lilting boat song, "Hail to the Chief," from the popular musical play, The Lady of the Lake after Sir Walter Scott [see more below]. Because John Quincy Adams was present at the ceremony, the occasion marked the first time "Hail to the Chief" was played for a president. The tune has become an important American ceremonial tradition and regularly heralds the appearance of the president at formal events of state today.

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 21.


Landmark Era Performance  ›  1828: Derived from an old Gaelic air, Hail to the Chief was already very popular when the Marine Band played it from a barge for the opening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal on July 4 in the presence of President John Quincy Adams.





Fanny Elssler in her celbrated Spanish dance, the cachucha

Fanny Elssler in her celbrated Spanish dance, the cachucha. Music Division, New York Public Library at the Lincoln Center
1830s

The White House under Andrew Jackson was simpler in its customs, ambience and attitudes than it had been under Adams or Monroe. It was the people’s house with public receptions that opened its doors to one and all. At one of President Jackson’s receptions, the Marine Band played one of the president’s favorite tunes, "Auld Lang Syne," as his hungry guests devoured a 1,400 pound "Mammoth Cheese." In American culture during this decade, ballet dancers were beginning to capture the attention of audiences, as well as the interests of presidents Jackson and Van Buren. A caricature of the popular ballerina Celeste Keppler, appearing before President Jackson and his cabinet, also shows Vice-President Martin van Buren, who later when president invited the famous Fanny Elssler to the White House. With her voluptuous hip-swaying dance, known as the cachucha complete with Spanish castanets, Elssler took all of Washington by storm at the time. So popular was the provocative Fanny, that it was decided Congress would only meet on the days she was not dancing.

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 26-27.





Hutchinson Family Singers

Hutchinson Family Singers. Collection of George Fullerton
1840s

During the administrations of John Tyler, James Knox Polk and Zachary Taylor, guest performers entertained at the White House with increasing frequency. Most often they were folk singers, whose music reflected the growing political and social unrest of the era. Tyler was the first of seven presidents who would hear the famous Hutchinson Family Singers in the decades ensuing. A stirring symbol of the Yankee spirit in music, the Hutchinsons expressed their genuine concern for human misery and social reform in subjects involving woman’s suffrage, alcohol, war, prisons, and especially slavery. A similar group, the Baker Family, sang songs with a more sentimental than social message for President Zachary Taylor and his family in 1849. But perhaps the most moving musical expression at the White House during these years was the program given by thirty blind and deaf-mute children for President Polk in 1846, proving that music as a mystical language could fortify the spirits of those who knew no other means of communication.

Elise Kirk, Musical Highlights from the White House, 30-33.


Landmark Era Performance  ›  1844: President John Tyler was accompanied by Hail to the Chief after First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler instructed the Marine Band to play it whenever the president made an official appearance. The piece evolved into a presidential entrance tribute during James K. Polk’s administration (1845-1849).



Sources: Elise K. Kirk, Music at the White House: A History of the American Spirit. University of Illinois, 1986 and Musical Highlights from the White House. Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1992.


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