The following is a guest post from pianist and independent scholar Bonny H. Miller, author of Augusta Browne: Composer and Woman of Letters in Nineteenth-Century America (Boydell & Brewer, 2020):
The life story of the American musician Augusta Browne (ca. 1820–1882) embodies persistence and faith amidst the antebellum era, the Civil War, and the burgeoning Gilded Age. There is no archive of personal papers for Browne in any library; rather, we have the counterpoint of her activities in American music as revealed through her publications and the press. The diverse resources of the Library of Congress were essential for multiple lines of research during the years of work on her biography. I drew on materials in the Manuscript Division, Prints and Photographs Division, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Geography and Map Division, Serial and Government Publication Division, and the U.S. Copyright Office. But first, last, and always were the resources of the Music Division.
Copyright deposits of sheet music hold a trove of Browne scores that the Library made available online in the early 2000s in the digital collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820 to 1860. Augusta Browne indicated Opus 200 on an unpublished piano solo, Aurora, but opus numbers appear on only a few of her works. Copyright deposits provide works that exemplify Browne’s output of songs and keyboard music during the 1840s and ’50s, when she was building a niche in the competitive sheet music marketplace in New York City. But there are some earlier and later scores among the Music Division’s vast sheet music holdings. These include imprints published by David Browne, Augusta’s father and principal music instructor. Her father ran a music shop and musical academy. He signed his imprints and inscribed some of them to prized students, such as “To Miss Wells for Industry, D. Browne,” as we see below in the overture to William Ware’s Overture to The Golden Farmer. Such examples offer insights into the pedagogy and repertoire that Augusta experienced as a young pianist.
Augusta Browne began to submit songs and piano variations to the Philadelphia publisher George E. Blake during the 1830s. The young composer found her stride during the 1840s when she churned out publications as regular sheet music imprints and also as music pages in household magazines. Following her first magazine music in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1841, Browne sought out domestic monthlies and literary journals as venues for her music, then for her prose, as she tried out fiction, essays, and poetry, beginning in 1845. Magazine publication remained an important medium for her work throughout her life. (For more about Browne and magazine music, see “Getting to Know Augusta Browne from Old Magazines,” at https://bonnymillermusic.com). The Library of Congress holdings of Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine provided my first opportunity to see her final songs, such as “Day of Judgment, Day of Wonders,” a hymn in memory of assassinated president James A. Garfield. The hymn appeared in the February 1882 issue of the Sunday Magazine, one month after Browne’s own death.
Sheet music collections, especially the personal music volumes bound for nineteenth-century women and girls, are the primary sources for Browne’s music outside of copyright deposits. As scattered libraries continue to catalog the contents of these vintage anthologies of sheet music, additional examples of Browne’s songs and keyboard solos add to the titles in the Library of Congress copyright deposits. But Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885, holds a song imprint by Browne not found in other binders volumes. “Forever Thine” (1872) is the only copyright deposit for a piece by Browne after 1870, although it was by no means her final music publication. “Forever Thine” shows a polished composer in an earnest parlor song that was probably composed as a tribute to her deceased husband, the portrait painter J. W. B. Garrett (ca. 1826–1858).
The serene acceptance of loss in “Forever Thine” reflects quite a change from the lively exuberance that pervades the Iris Waltz, a rare example of music published in a literary annual at mid-century, when Browne enjoyed her greatest recognition. The Iris for 1851 was an attractive volume of “polite literature” for the parlor, produced for the lucrative gift book market at Christmas and New Year’s. The delicate tracery of flowers by [Christian] Schuessele that surrounds the waltz was reproduced with chromolithographic technique for color printing that was more vivid than the hand-tinted illustrations used in many magazines. The fact that the music was incorporated in the process makes this an unusual antebellum music score. The music page was one of several vibrant, multicolored illustrations featured in the front matter of the Philadelphia Iris gift book, as shown in a copy from the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections.
People often ask: how famous was she? That’s tricky to answer. Augusta Browne never had a hit song. Her works turn up in only about one or two percent of binders volumes, a sure sign that she was never a household celebrity. But she was well-known to literary and musical circles around New York City in the mid-nineteenth century. Because of the constant reprinting of material from one periodical or newspaper to another (legal at the time owing to printer’s exchanges), Browne’s literary works circulated more widely than her musical works. Thus she may have been better known as an author than as a composer during her lifetime. But music always came first for her, and her music never fails to evoke its time and place in American culture. Uncovering Augusta Browne reveals a confident American voice from 150 years ago.