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Beautiful Dreamer

1 February 2023

Composed by Stephen Foster, “Beautiful Dreamer” is one of those songs that elicit sentiments from the heart that cannot be denied. Anyone listening to this tune, sung from the heart, who cannot sense a tear in the eye, doesn’t have a heart, or much of an eye worth tearing up.

Stephen Collins Foster was born on 4 July 1826 in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, a town that is now a portion of Pittsburgh. At that time, this place was part of the frontier in the United States of the pre-Civil War era. It may be difficult for moderns to imagine this region as the Western frontier, albeit a civilized, somewhat citified edge of that spirit that was always pushing forward, into the vast unknown that was The West.

By and large, Foster wasn’t formally taught, instructed, tutored, or otherwise confined in exploring his own knowledge, and appreciation, of music. Self-taught in playing the clarinet, guitar, flute, and piano, Stephen preferred his own path toward genius, a tormented one, to be sure. He was, however, taught, at about thirteen years of age, musical composition by Henry Kleber, a German-born music dealer in Pittsburgh. It appears that single and singular series of lessons sufficed to ground Foster well enough in the craft of cranking out melodies for the public.

Those lessons were spearheaded by one of his six older brothers. This adolescent was thus exposed to the classical works of Mozart; the compositions of Beethoven, who formed a transition between the Classical and Romantic eras; the lieder and symphonies of Schubert, whose life overlapped that of Beethoven, and whose works took part in the late Classical and early Romantic eras; and the very varied compositions by Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, otherwise known as Mendelssohn, of the early Romantic period.

The range of influences couldn’t have been more wide-ranging!

Foster created his own forms from within himself, though what that self precisely was, or wanted, perhaps even this man did not know. He’d followed from childhood a very natural bend toward melody, soaking in the sounds and schematic patterns of the strains surrounding him, songs voiced by his three older sisters and six older brothers.

Given enough elder siblings to present, and perhaps foster, inescapable influences, any creative mind can prosper! The mind of Stephen Foster undoubtedly did.

Yet, it was the Ulster Scots within this imaginative restless man that came to the fore in myriad and marvelous ways during those early decades of the American experiment. Stephen Collins Foster consequently was justly granted a hallowed place in the history of the music of those United States.

This inventive composer of humble beginnings reached the most sublime heights of his fame after his death. During his lifetime, he earned barely enough on which to survive while creating his minstrel and parlour songs and sentimental ballads.

He wished to become “the best Ethiopian song writer,” mimicking the melodic lines and harmonic progressions from the spirituals sung by Negro labourers that he heard in a warehouse in Pittsburgh. There, he’d toiled for a time, gaining more intangible than tangible benefits. He also gleaned rather rich rewards, auditory and aesthetically stirring, from experiencing the gospel hymns of the Negro church services that he attended with the family servant, a woman named Olivia Pise.

I can attest from personal experience that the hymns sung by congregations in Negro churches of the long-ago vastly differed from those sung in white churches of that same long-ago. As a child, sitting in the back seat of the family car en route to Sunday morning service, I’d listen in amazement to the lofty, luscious, tactile sounds emanating from the Methodist Church in Paterson, New Jersey. The family car passed by that house of spiritual revival and old-time religion, heading toward the Baptist church of my youth.

The difference, the contrast, the major division between those two modes of intoning those hallelujahs:

Music from the heart vs. music from the hymnal.

Stephen Foster always seemed to have oscillated between writing those two forms of song: the minstrel melody of instantly recognizable and palpably singable style; and the sentimental style of conventional dignity&respect — in vogue at the time — but producing much less impact upon the heart.

Because he wasn’t the most savvy seller of his own creations (a pesky problem that plagues many true artists), Foster was always undergoing money problems. His penchant for imbibing aqua vitae didn’t help him. By 1857, he was in deep financial straits, and he sold all rights to his future songs to his publishers for approximately $1,900. The performers and publishers of his astoundingly original compositions garnered the bulk of his profits.

He worked many an unfulfilling non-imaginative job; and then married, in 1850, at the age of twenty-four, the daughter of a physician. By that time, he’d sold his songs away to his publisher for a song. Among those gems cast like pearls before swine were “Oh! Susanna” and “Old Uncle Ned”.

Foster then received a commission to compose songs for a minstrel show; and he promptly performed duties as assigned: giving to the world one of his most famous tunes, “Old Folks at Home”, also known as “Swanee River”. That lilting work of art originally appeared under the name of the owner of the minstrel show, Edwin P. Christy. The name of the brilliant composer, Stephen Foster, appeared on the song only after 1879, fifteen years after his death.

I’m reminded of Elvis Presley and his immortal voice, signing away to a greedy Dutchman, nicknamed the Colonel, the rights to that voice, and to other God-given gifts. How can an abundantly talented spirit be so passive about the running of his own life?

It’s a question that shall never be answered. There are some phenomenally gifted individuals who possess genius that, for whatever reason, is akin to clay that wants to be molded by others, not by themselves. There are also the inventors and innovators who need to contend with their lives coming apart at the seams for their phenomenal creativity to come to fruition. Their genius needs a cruel edge against which to sharpen itself — without much, if any, resistance.

I am not one of those artists. I need a counter-irritant against which to fight, and to do a mighty battle. My Muse is a warrior, maybe even a Celtic warrior. My personal self is less a fighter, more a quiet, sensitive observer.

I, and my Muse, have known more than “our” share of the submissive artist unable to, in the end, combat the fate he’s wooed, frequently unknowingly. The demise to which each tender heart brought itself can, and does, bring a tear to my eye.

Mrs. Foster left her husband in 1861, attempted a reconciliation in 1862, but eventually bade him adieu, leaving him to his fate. This composer of American songs spent his final four years in New York City. Sometime during January 1864, he fell ill with a fever. He was discovered in his hotel in the Bowery (which has never been a good part of town). Foster was alive, but prostrate, on the floor, in a pool of his own blood.

It’s been conjectured that Foster, weakened, delirious, and confused, accidentally fell and cut his neck. It’s also been theorized that he tried to take his own life. I find that sinister speculation, a ghoulish guess, at best, hard to swallow. Foster may not have known how to move forward with his life, but he would not have placed his soul in mortal peril of never seeing the face of his Maker.

Any person aspiring to reconcile the noisy dissonance within himself with the celestial harmony beyond that self; any person striving to harmonize the dulcet tones in his mind with the din of the outside world: that tormented living soul is not seeking a destiny of hellfire and damnation. He’s pursuing peace, an accord between himself and the Lord, with all of his will, a will afflicted with a disease, a malady that, inevitably, only the divine doctor can cure.

It was his writing partner, George Cooper, who found his creative companion, alive, in this horrendous condition; and who brought him to Bellevue Hospital. There, Stephen Collins Foster died on 13 January 1864 at the age of thirty-seven.

The Father of American Music had written more than 200 songs. A Romantic in life and in art, Stephen Foster was a flame that burned too brightly, and then burned out quickly. In his leather wallet were found three pennies, 37 cents in Civil War scrip, and a scrap of paper on which was written:

“Dear friends and gentle hearts . . .”

“Beautiful Dreamer” was published posthumously, in 1864, a year of horrific war between and within the divided United States. This song, in particular, does away with that definite, often brutal, division between music from the heart vs. music from the hymnal.

A beautiful dreamer merges, blends, synthesizes, and unites what’s in the soul and what’s on the page. Stephen Foster was that beautiful dreamer.a

Beautiful Dreamer

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me

Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;

Sounds of the rude world heard in the day

Lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away!

Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song

List while I woo thee with soft melody;

Gone are the cares of life’s busy throng

Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea

Mermaids are chaunting the wild lorelie;

Over the streamlet vapors are borne

Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn

Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart

E’en as the morn on the streamlet and sea;

Then will all clouds of sorrow depart

Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!


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