Did you know that music was important at Mount Vernon?
Although he may not have been musically-inclined himself, George Washington was the head of a household where his wife, Martha–whom he had married as a widow with two children, and later her four grandchildren (two of whom were raised by the Washingtons) all studied music. An intimate friend of Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, Alexander Reinagle, was engaged as the music teacher of George Washington’s step-granddaughter, Eleanor Parke Custis (known as Nelly), whom Washington adopted legally when her father died.
The President bought her a harpsichord and had it imported from Europe. Martha made her granddaughter, Nelly, practice on it 4 or 5 hours a day. As an adult, Martha Washington’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis (known as “Washy”) recalled that his sister, Nelly, had to practice “very long and very unwillingly at the harpsichord…the poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the immediate eye of her grandmother, a rigid disciplinarian in all things.”
The purchase of the harpsichord and long hours of practice seems to have accomplished their intended purpose. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a Polish nobleman who stayed at Mount Vernon in June 1798, wrote of Nelly that, “Her sweetness is equal to her beauty, and this being, so perfect of form, possesses all the talents: she plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.” On the eve of his visit, he lamented and wrote, “In the evening, for the last time, pretty Miss Custis sang and played on the harpsichord.”
Among the surviving musical scores owned by Nelly Custis were the following: several adapted by her music teacher Alexander Reinagle for the piano from the operas Rosina and The Poor Soldier, a version of a Haydn symphony called Le Reine de France arranged for harpsichord or pianoforte, a keyboard arrangement of Gluck’s overture to the opera Iphigenia at Aulis, several sonatas by J. C. Bach, as well as an excerpt from Handel’s Water Music, and Haydn’s Mermaids Song.