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Athens of the South: Nashville’s Musical Legacy, Part 1

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Here in the Music Section of the National Library Service we are counting down the days until the National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals begins next month in Music City, Nashville, Tennessee! As I mentioned in my last article, I’ve been taking the opportunity to learn about the musical history of this great American city. In that article I introduced books from the NLS Music Collection that discuss the beginnings of the country music industry in Nashville. For many of us inhabitants of the twenty-first century, I suspect, Nashville’s musical identity is dominated by country music of the twentieth century, which is why I was surprised and fascinated to learn that the city’s musical legacy extends deep into the nineteenth century. In this article I’d like to pull back the curtain and tell you about the Music City that existed before the Grand Ole Opry, Acuff-Rose Music publishing, and Music Row came to town…

Chromolithograph print showing the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897.
Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Nashville, Tennessee, 1897. Chromolithograph by Henderson Lithographing Co., 1896.

The Athens of the South–this came to be Nashville’s sobriquet in the nineteenth century because of the numerous institutions of higher learning founded there and a vibrant concert culture of European art music, not to mention the city’s full-size replica of the Athenian Parthenon constructed for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897 (the Parthenon can be seen in the center of the above print that advertised the Exposition). How did Nashville become a cosmopolitan town? Nashville’s city charter dates to 1806, and by the 1820s the city benefited from its situation on the Cumberland River, becoming a trade depot for river-based commerce as well as a manufacturing site. The city became the center of Tennessee’s political life as well. In the 1850s the arrival of railroads solidified Nashville’s position as a hub of transportation and commerce. Additionally, Nashville was spared destruction during the Civil War once Union forces occupied the city in February 1862 and the site became heavily fortified.

After the War, Nashville’s population grew as it remained a central location in the region’s water and rail systems. During Reconstruction educational institutions including Fisk University (1866) and Vanderbilt University (1873) were founded, giving rise to the appellation “Athens of the South.” One of Nashville’s famous homegrown musical groups is the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which originated as a group of students who sang choral arrangements of African American spirituals, embarking on concert tours to fund their new school founded to educate freedmen.

Black and white photograph of the choir and organ of Fisk University.
Choir and organ of Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn. Photographic print ca. 1899.

As a center of learning, politics, transportation, and commerce, Nashville had an audience for performances of Western European art music, with opera performances such as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor beginning as early as the 1850s. By the 1860s Nashville’s theaters regularly featured Italian operas; the Vendôme theater opened in the 1880s with a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Amateur musical societies were also a feature of Nashville’s musical life. For example, the Schiller Music Festival in 1859 hosted performances of oratorios by Handel and Haydn, according to Grove Music Online.

Next week in part two of this article we will learn how Nashville’s most famous music venue, the Ryman Auditorium, came to be known as the Carnegie Hall of the South long before it was called the Mother Church of Country Music.

I invite you to celebrate Nashville’s rich musical past with the following books and sheet music from the NLS Music Section. This is but a small selection of our books on these topics. Please browse our Music Appreciation Catalog, Music Instruction Catalog, and Large-Print Scores and Books Catalog. Contact the Music Section by phone at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected] to learn more.


Braille books and sheet music

  • “Ardon gl’incensi,” soprano vocal score (BRM25287)
  • “Regnava nel silenzio,” soprano vocal score (BRM25288)
  • Lucia di Lammermoor, libretto in English translation (BRM24733)
  • Lucia di Lammermoor, vocal score with English and Italian texts (BRM28336)
  • Il Trovatore, libretto in English translation (BRM24736)
  • “D’amor sull’ ali rosee,” soprano vocal score (BRM24764)
  • “Tacea la notte placida,” soprano vocal score (BRM25285)

Large-print books and sheet music

  • Verdi: His Music, Life, and Times (LPM00320)
  • Lucia di Lammermoor, libretto in Italian and English (LPM00643)
  • Il Trovatore, libretto in Italian and English (LPM00449)

Comments (3)

  1. The old photos of USA are excellent…Library of Congress has too much to show us…Thanks so much

  2. Just a minor typo. *Ryman (not Ryan), near the end.

    • Thank you for your comment! This post has been updated to correct the typo you found.

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