Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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FOSTER, Stephen Collins, song composer, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 4 July 1826; died in New York City, 13 January 1864. At the age of thirteen he was sent to school in Towanda, Pennsylvania, and afterward to Athens, Pennsylvania At fifteen he entered Jefferson co1lege at Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania, but soon returned to his native place to pursue his favorite studies with private tutors. Possessing a natural fond ness for music, he learned, un aided, to play on the flageolet, and thrummed the guitar and banjo as an accompaniment to ditties of his own composition. But he soon realized the limitations of musical self-instruction, and thereafter devoted several years of study to the voice and to pianoforte music.
In 1842, when he was a merchant's clerk in Cincinnati, Ohio, his first song, " Open thy Lattice, Love," appeared in Baltimore, Maryland Two others, " Uncle Ned" and "O Susannah !" were immediately taken up by traveling Negro minstrels, and became universally popular. This success fixed Foster's destiny; he relinquished his career in business and devoted himself entirely to musical composition. In 1850 Foster married and removed to New York City but the couple soon tired of their new home and returned to Pittsburgh. About this time he composed his "Old Folks at Home." For the privilege of singing it in public, Christy's minstrels paid him $500 in 1861 appeared "Old Black Joe," the last of his Negro melodies; thereafter he confined himself to the composition of sentimental ballads.
In 1860 Foster, with his wife and child, returned to New York City, where the family remained until he died. He wrote in succession about 125 pieces, one fourth of which were Negro ditties, and the others home ballads. So popular did many become, both here and abroad, that they were introduced at concerts by the most eminent vocalists, and rendered into foreign languages. Of "0 Susannah ! .... Nelly was a Lady,"" Uncle Ned," "Nelly Bly," "Old Dog Tray," "Old Kentucky Home," " Willie, we have missed You," and "Old Folks at Home," hundreds of thousands of copies were printed. The last-named was by far the most profitable piece ever published in this country.
Foster wrote both the words and music of all his pieces. His method of composition was to jot down the melody as it came to him, and thereafter invent suitable words. He adhered to simple chords for accompaniments, and kept the airs within the range of ordinary voices. The subjects appeal to home life and popular taste, and the versification is smooth and musical. His Negro ditties are characterized by archness, humor, and unusual refinement. In some of his compositions, notably so in the beautiful serenade "Come where my Love lies Dreaming," Foster rises to a higher plane than that of a writer of ditties, and commands the admiration of scientific musicians. He was a man of culture, familiar with the French and German languages, and a respectable artist in watercolors.
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