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

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. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.03354

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. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a49512

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 Ryan 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)

Bernstein at 100

When I was in grade school, our chorus teacher let us hear a record called What Is Jazz (DBM00704), where tone color, blue notes, syncopation, and other aspects of jazz were described by a man named Leonard Bernstein (I assumed that he was a jazz piano player). By sixth grade I was listening to classical music […]

American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: D (Part 1 – Dello Joio, Norman)

Norman Dello Joio (born Nicodemo DeGioio) was born in New York City in January 1913. His father and grandfather had been church musicians, and Norman was set to follow their footsteps, as he became the organist and choir director at age 14. When he was 26, he received a scholarship to attend Julliard, where he […]

EXTRA!!! Recent BARD Additions, Late January-February Edition

Here is a listing of the most recent BARD additions.  If you aren’t able to find something on this list for learning or entertainment, check back next month, or the next; something will come your way.  In the meantime, a tune many of us heard from a television comedy of the 60s, “Ballad of Gilligan’s […]

New BARD additions: December- January

The Music Section has been very busy over the past month adding new and newly digitized music materials to BARD. From Mozart, to bluegrass, to method books for alto and bass flute, there is a little bit of something here for everyone! If you have any questions on how to use BARD or to obtain […]

Good Friday

The following post is from John Hanson, former Section Head of the NLS Music Section. Tomorrow is Good Friday. It is a major Christian holiday marking Jesus’ crucifixion. “Holiday” seems a little too joyful a term given its origin.  But the stock market is closed. Wall Street has a holiday. For me, growing up, Good Friday was […]

Liessens Music Writer, Part 2

Continued from last week August Liessens was born in 1894 in Ninove, Belgium. When he was seven years old, he enrolled at the local school for the blind, headed by the Brothers of Charity (Frères de la Charité).  Following that, Liessens was admitted to Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelle, a music school that boasts such famous faculty […]

Celebrating Black Composers

In honor of Black History Month, this blog post will highlight materials in the music section that are written by or about African American composers. These composers wrote in many styles, including popular, Western classical, jazz, gospel, and more. Here is some music by three Black composers that we have available in our collection. Harry […]

A Four Hour Concert in an Unheated Hall

On this day, over two hundred years ago, a historic concert took place. It was in Vienna, in the middle of the Advent season, and Beethoven needed some money. “But, Beethoven,” you would say, “surely he was doing fine! He is Beethoven! Everyone loves him!” However, in Vienna in 1808, just because everyone loved you […]

What A Great Service!

I heard these words a lot this past weekend. That’s because the NLS Music Section made its way to the NAfME (National Association for Music Education) conference in Grapevine, TX. While there, I was able to promote our service to music teachers from all over the country—and some future music teachers too! The refrain I kept […]