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Students take on music from pre-Civil War era

First-year music major Kaitlyn Eckman practices with Dr. Bonnie Von Hoff at piano.

She fussed about her hair and evening gown and thought she looked quite lovely, despite the tight corset that made breathing difficult. She sat in the front, separate from her suitor, who stood with the other men in back of the parlor.

The music was wonderful, and it was surprising to learn the piece being played was written by a woman.

This scene comes from a diary entry written by first-year music major Kaitlyn Eckman – an assignment given her independent study group to help them envision what life was like for women in 1800s Georgia.

The 10 voice students are preparing for next week’s recital at Georgia’s Old Governor’s Mansion, called “Women’s Music in Antebellum Georgia.” To immerse them in pre-Civil War culture, voice lecturer Dr. Bonnie Von Hoff chose 19th-century compositions like opera arias, folk tunes and parlor songs. Assistant professor of music Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak created research activities to help singers better understand and reflect upon this understudied aspect of Georgia’s musical history.

“The piano parts are relatively simple,” Gorzelany-Mostak said. “The melodies have a very small range. It’s the sort of music that was created for people to enjoy in the home. Most women during this period didn’t have access to high-level, professional training – but they still entertained their family and friends. So, this is really a look at music in domestic settings.”

Being at a small liberal arts university, Eckman had the chance to participate in research as a first-year student and perform two solos in the recital. The soprano will sing Thomas Moore’s “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls” and the Italian aria “La Donna é Mobile” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” The opera aria is the only piece audiences will recognize, as the popular tune used in pasta commercials.

Eckman will make her appearance and mannerisms as authentic to the period as she can – wearing a long, red gown but not a corset. She read about 1800s fashion in antique ladies’ magazines and about proper manners in the “Principals of Etiquette, and Rules of Behaviour in Genteel Society, for Persons of Both Sexes.” As a history minor, Eckman found the assignment enlightening.

“It was definitely very separate,” she said. “Women would sit in the front, and the men would sit in the back during a parlor concert. Women were deemed as delicate, and men were responsible for everything, even holding the tickets.”

“I can’t imagine having to wear a corset,” Eckman added. “I just don’t think I could handle it. How could they sing and breathe with those on?”

Students toured the Old Governor’s Mansion, hearing about the lives of women who lived there. They cooked “Baked Apple Pudding” and “Gingerbread” from an 1824 plantation cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife.” Desserts had strange ingredients like “pearl ash” and didn’t give accurate measurements, kneading instructions or how hot the open fire needed to be. It didn’t have to be written down; women learned by watching their mothers and grandmothers cook.

“It’s a metaphor of sorts,” Gorzelany-Mostak said, “because anytime you pick up a piece of music, you also have an incomplete record. That piece of music doesn’t tell you about its context. That’s something you need to figure out on your own. You can research books or use your imagination, and I think a combination of both makes for a really rich experience.”

Did women of the time period also use their imagination when singing repertoires in the parlor? The opera aria Eckman will sing was written for male tenor voices. How did women come to sing it?

These are the types of questions students were asked to ponder, when preparing for the concert. Since the home and parlor were a woman’s domain – is that where they found the courage and early freedom to take on men’s roles and more-fully express themselves?

“That’s partly what the opera arias are for,” Von Hoff said, “to give women a chance to show their voices off. I find it absolutely fascinating that women would take these arias and sing them in this casual recital atmosphere.”

“You see in this antebellum era a spectrum of emotion much like we have today,” she said. “So, the more we can make those correlations, the more relatable it becomes for our students, and the more relatable it becomes, I think, the better their performance.”

Dr. Candace Bailey from North Carolina Central University will speak about women’s musical culture in the Antebellum south at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 13, in the Old Governor’s Mansion. Vocal students will sing a dozen songs, accompanied by graduate student Sungmee Kim on piano. The final hymn, “When for Eternal Worlds We Steer,” will be sung a cappella by the ensemble. 
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