Classical music

By the twentieth century, classical music was melding with indigenous influences, initiating the shift to a distinctly American musical style and the emergence of native composers such as George Gershwin, who incorporated American idioms into Porgy and Bess (1935), the most frequently performed American opera.

The first permanent English settlers in South Carolina arrived in 1670, bringing their European musical traditions with them. Psalmody (the singing of psalms in divine worship) was the primary music of the colonists, and by 1700 singing schools provided both musical and devotional training. Although sacred music remained the predominant music of the colonies, the flourishing musical patronage of Charleston, which was the fourth-largest city in British North America by 1742, continued to cultivate the European classical style. As early as 1732 the South-Carolina Gazette reported on the second public concert given in the colonies. The St. Cecilia Society, the oldest musical society in the United States, was formed in 1762, providing formal musical instruction and offering concerts until 1822, when it became an exclusive social cotillion.

In the upstate, English, Scots, and Irish settlers brought the secular, oral tradition of the ballad, whose early influence on the development of art music is evidenced by the 1735 production of Colley Cibber’s Flora, or Hob in the Well. The English Ballad Opera Company presented this first performance of an opera in America in a courtroom above Shepheard’s Tavern in Charleston.

By 1800 northeastern singing schools were virtually extinct, although they remained active throughout the rural southern areas well into the nineteenth century. The singing master William Walker, born near Cross Keys in Union County, compiled Southern Harmony, which was first published in 1835 in Spartanburg. According to its author, the revolutionary tune book sold more than 600,000 copies and contained hymns, psalms, and anthems published in the popular shape-note tradition designed to assist untrained musicians.

While sacred music was thriving in the rural areas, the refined musical tastes of Charleston’s society continued to prefer the European secular tradition. In addition to the active concert life, the dissemination of western art music persisted during the heyday of American piano production during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Because of the great demand for classical and, eventually, popular sheet music, the Seigling Music House (1819–1970) established a retail music store on King Street in Charleston and also operated a music-publishing firm, issuing the works and arrangements of local and European composers. Julian Selby of Columbia was another publisher who issued general and music materials during the 1860s.

After the Civil War, the South’s musical activities were slow to resume, but South Carolina’s cultural life soon prospered with the construction of music halls such as the Newberry Opera House (1881), the establishment of schools such as the Charleston Conservatory (1884), and the founding of numerous ensembles such as the state’s first all-black touring group, the Jenkins Orphanage Band (circa 1895), which played a mixture of ragtime, military, and popular music.

By the twentieth century, classical music was melding with indigenous influences, initiating the shift to a distinctly American musical style and the emergence of native composers such as George Gershwin, who incorporated American idioms into Porgy and Bess (1935), the most frequently performed American opera. Set on Cabbage Row (Gershwin called it Catfish Row) in Charleston, the opera includes a mixture of indigenous Gullah spirituals, hymns, and blues, which Gershwin studied during his 1934 visit to Folly Island.

The two most prominent composers native to the state are Lily Strickland (1887–1958) of Anderson and Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926) of Latta. Strickland incorporated spirituals, lullabies, and ethnic folk music into more than four hundred vocal and instrumental compositions, her most famous being “Mah Lindy Lou.” Floyd, best known for his opera Susannah, has composed several other operas, song cycles, music for piano, and music for orchestra and chorus. Although not native South Carolinians, two other important twentieth-century composers who have impacted musical activity in the state are Ernst Bacon (1898–1990), former dean of and piano professor at Converse College (1938–1945), and Don Gillis (1912–1978), composer in residence and director of the media arts institute at the University of South Carolina from 1973 until his death in 1978.

Musical endeavors continue to prosper in the state’s educational institutions as well as in amateur and professional performing groups such as the Charleston Symphony (founded in 1936), the Greenville Symphony (founded in 1948), and the South Carolina Philharmonic (founded in 1963). South Carolina is also home to the internationally renowned Spoleto Festival, which serves as a forum for traditional and contemporary works as well as new and young artists.

Kingman, Daniel. American Music: A Panorama. 2d ed. New York: Schirmer, 1990.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2d ed. 29 vols. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries, 2001.

Simons, Elizabeth Potter. Music in Charleston from 1732–1919. Charleston, S.C.: J. J. Furlong, 1927.

Sonneck, Oscar. Early Concert-Life in America (1731–1800). 1907. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1978.

–––. Early Opera in America. New York: Schirmer, 1915.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Classical music
  • Author
  • Keywords European musical traditions, Porgy and Bess (1935), Lily Strickland, Carlisle Floyd, Spoleto Festival, Charleston Symphony, Greenville Symphony
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date December 6, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 20, 2022
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