Stephen Collins Foster Biography - online book

A Biography Of America's Folk-Song Composer By Harold Vincent Milligan

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VIII
THE COMPOSER
As a composer, Stephen Foster is a paradox. The wonder is that anyone who could write so well, could at the same time write so poorly. Was he a man of mediocre talent, who stumbled almost by accident upon a few nuggets of pure gold in the midst of much of little worth, or was he endowed with a great gift which remained for the most part mute and found expression only in a few brief moments of song?
He had practically no constructive ability. So far as the first impulse of his inspiration could carry him, he went, but no farther. Judged by the standards of musi­cal composition, nearly all of his one-hundred and sev-' enty or more songs are on the same level. These songs were written throughout a period of about twenty years, during which time he neither gained nor lost in the power of expression. His death, at thirty-seven, found him as a composer just about where he had been at the begin­ning of his career. Both melody and harmony are of the utmost simplicity. He could neither develop a melody nor vary his harmony. His melodies repeat themselves monotonously, and he was content with a few simple chords and modulations. And yet when his inspiration is of so pure and exalted a nature as it is in "The Old Kentucky Home," or "The Old Folks at Home," the very limitations of his power become virtues, resulting in a simplicity and directness of utterance which no amount of erudition and sophistication could have equalled in sincerity and potency. He put the best of himself into the composition of these songs, and it is because they are the honest expression of real emotion that they found their way directly and at once to the world's heart.
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E-Book - An Annotated Compendium of Old Time American Songs by James Alverson III