Composer Stephen Collins Foster was born on the 4th July 1826 in Pennsylvania, USA. With over 200 songs to his credit, he is arguably one of the most famous songwriters of the 19th century. He grew up in a large family, being the youngest of the 10 children his parents had. From when Foster was young, he had music lessons. He was educated privately in maths, Greek, diction, grammar, Latin, classics and penmanship.
Foster learnt to play the guitar, flute and clarinet also and was self-taught! He became keen in composition and sought assistance from local music dealer, Henry Kleber, rather than being formally taught. He was only 14 when he composed his first piece, entitled Tioga Waltz. He had a short spell at the then named Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, then left to visit Pittsburgh and did not go back. In 1844, at the age of 18, Open thy Lattice Love became the first of Foster’s songs ever to be published.
By 1846, his brother owned a steamship company called Dunning’s in Cincinnati, Ohio and Foster decided to move there to become his bookkeeper, after not earning much from song writing. Between 1848 and 1849, he wrote many songs, which became very successful, including the well-known Oh! Susanna. A year later, Foster’s Ethiopian Melodies was published.
In 1849, He decided to go back to Pennsylvania when he signed a deal with the Christy Minstrels, a group formed by, and named after, the well-known ballad singer Edwin Pearce Christy. This group specialised in performing Foster’s works and it during this time that he wrote the majority of his most well-known songs. Notable examples are
1854 also saw him complete his biggest project entitled The Social Orchestra. This is an arrangement for piano, flute, violin along with other instruments too. It combines 73 pieces of music from his own compositions and well as other written by more famous composers, such as Schubert and Mozart for example. This sold well and became popular in the day.
The last 4 years of Stephen Foster’s life were spent in the city of New York, while his wife and daughter moved back to Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, in 1864, he became poorly with a fever, which led to an unfortunate accident, when he fell and cut his neck. He was fortunately found alive by George Cooper, his writing partner and taken to hospital. However, he died aged just 37 only 3 days later on the 3rd January 1864, with reportedly only 38 cents found in his wallet along with a note that read ‘Dear friends and gentle hearts.’ There is some mystery surrounding his death however, as different versions of events have surfaced, including speculation that he committed suicide and this was covered up by his family.
He is buried in Pittsburgh at the Allegheny Cemetery. One of his most-loved songs Beautiful Dreamer was published posthumously in March 1864. His legacy knows him as ‘the father of American music’, becoming a professional songwriter long before there was an American music business or even sound recording. He will forever be known for his prolific song writing of over 200 songs, many of which are still popular today. He used to send his handwritten scores directly to his publishers. Unfortunately, many of which are now in private collections. Foster’s songs have been the influence for many other songwriters and his compositions have been used in many TV shows and films and many other things are named in his honour.