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Was parlor music-making a pleasure or a chore?

By Dominique Theodore

Adelaide Childs Frick and Children, Francisco Roseti (1889), The Frick Pittsburgh

In the 19th century, girls were supposed to play the piano and sing. Adelaide and Helen Clay Frick were no exception. Florence Hartley advises in the 1860 Ladies’ Book of Etiquette that “a young lady should consider music as one branch of her education, inferior, in importance, to most of those studies which are pointed out to her, but attainable in a sufficient degree by the aid of time, perseverance, and a moderate degree of instruction.” Adelaide and Helen clearly treated music as a branch of their education. Their collection of sheet music contains a variety of pieces for different social contexts: for instance, Rossini’s William Tell Overture would be appropriate for entertaining while other pieces were more suited to intimate family time, such as the Stevenson Song Book. In this songbook, American and English composers set Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Children’s Garden of Verses” for piano and voice. One song “The Sun Travels” by Arthur Foote was probably played before bedtime since it is about putting kids to sleep around the world. In the following clip, I perform the song with the idea that Adelaide sang and played this piece as part of the children’s bedtime ritual.

Notice that the song is simple and peaceful. The piano accompaniment features continuous octave leaps in the bass line that sound like gentle rocking. Since the melody moves with mostly step-wise motion, the children may have been able to sing along. The song is short, and likely held the attention of young children when they were sleepy at night. Likely Adelaide would have had the skills to sight read and play any pieces in the songbook that the children requested.

The Sun's Travels
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Performed by Dominique Theodore (soprano) and Nicole Vilkner (piano)

There were varied opinions about the music-making responsibilities of girls and their mothers. According to a study by musicologist Ruth Solie, all girls were expected to have at least one song that they could sing and play when they were asked. They were responsible for providing daily household entertainment and were expected to provide relaxing music for their fathers when they came home from work. Not all girls wanted this responsibility. Solie notes one teenager in Anthony Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie who said, “It’s my belief that I shall hate the sound of a piano the longest day that I shall live.” Yet others enjoyed this role. Twenty-year-old Grace Brown Elmore from South Carolina said in 1864, “My music is very, very, very much to me, and my happiest if not my only happy hours are those I spend at the piano.” In the nineteenth century, musical skill was also viewed as a social advantage for women. According to the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in 1800, “Every well-bred girl, whether she has talent or not, must learn to play the piano or sing; first of all, it’s fashionable; secondly, it’s the most convenient way for her to put herself forward in society and thereby, if she is lucky, make an advantageous matrimonial alliance, particularly a moneyed one.”


Theodore Parlor Music.jpeg

How, then, did Helen and Adelaide feel about parlor music-making? Was it a pleasure or a chore?  If Adelaide sang and played to help her children fall asleep, she probably enjoyed parlor music-making to some extent. Helen certainly played piano as a household contribution, but her music-making would never lead to a marriage. Perhaps this was never her goal.  For more on Helen’s approach to piano-playing, see the SoundWalk site on Cécile Chaminade.

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