On April 4, 1837, the Harmonica Society advertised its first concert in the Surinaamsche Courant. The advertisement, nestled between advertisements for slave auctions, announcements about newly-arrived household wares, and notices of ship arrivals and departures, invited the public to share in an evening of music starting at 7:30 pm.
This was only the first of a series of over two dozen concerts, begun by the Pos brother—both violinists—most of which took place on the second floor of the Waag—the Weighing House—on Paramaribo’s waterfront.
What did the fashionable colonial elite listen to? What was their musical world like? Of course, these plantation owners and their families would have been surrounded by the music of the enslaved, longstanding oral traditions brought over from Africa. But they also performed—and listened to—European classical music. According to P.A. Samson, the Pos brothers organized a performance of the first act of Rossini’s Barber of Seville in 1840 (163). A decade later, in 1851, the celebrated Belgian violinist and composer, Henri Vieuxtemps performed a concert in Paramaribo (Kempen 147).
But the Harmonica Society concert series suggests an already flourishing musical community that must have existed even well before the 1830s. Indeed, an early nineteenth-century visitor, Albert von Sack, noted in 1807 that a group of music lovers organized regular weekly concerts (Kempen 147).
But what was on the concert programs? When I first went looking through early Surinamese newspapers (available online via delpher.nl), I wasn’t sure what I’d discover, but I anticipated that the music might have been somewhat dated. After all, Paramaribo was a remote colonial outpost on the edge of South America. But I was wrong. Paramaribo’s concert-going elite may have lived far from the centres of power, but for between 3 and 6 florins per concert, they could enjoy the latest in musical offerings.
In September 1837, the concert program featured a range of works by Louis Spohr (1784-1859), Anton Bohrer (1783-1852), Ferdinand David (1810-1873), and—be still my beating flutist heart—the German flutist and pedagogue, Antoine Bernhard Fürstenau.
The Rondo Brillant (possibly this one) was performed by a father-son duo: A.A. Samuels and son. As an aside: It’s possible that the A. A. Samuels listed here is the same Samuels named in the 1840 Almanac as owner of Ma Retraite plantation, a large coffee and cocoa plantation located right behind Fort Zeelandia (and now incorporated into Paramaribo proper).
Just a few months later, in January 1838, the program included a four-hand piano piece by Carl Czerny (1791-1857), a violin work by the French composer, Pierre Rode (1774-1830), and yet another work for flute, a Fantaisie by the celebrated French flutist and composer, Jean-Louis Tulou (1786-1865)!
Tulou wrote a number of Fantaisies for flute, but perhaps it was this one, the Fantaisie Op. 29, composed in 1821? In any event, it was performed by a Suriname-based organist, J.E. Kreutzer, who also composed and performed his own theme and variations for guitar on that same concert program.
Later that spring, another concert took place. This one featured a Mozart Overture as well as works for violin, guitar, voice, and flute by a range of composers including the Belgian Charles Auguste de Bériot (1802-1870), the German Peter Josef van Lindpainter (1791-1856), and the now well-loved Italian, Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868).
Few of these composers are well known to us today; in fact, I’d hazard a guess that some names are completely unfamiliar. However, the range and variety of composers and works suggests that the colonial elite were avid musicians and music lovers, keen to share the latest European offerings with friends, neighbours, and colleagues in Suriname. Oh, to have been able to observe these evenings….
What might this music have sounded like? How would it have been received? The first is a tantalizing question that I can explore. My flutes and I have ongoing dates with some early nineteenth-century music….
Kempen, Michiel van. Een geschiedenis van de Surinaamse literatuur. Deel 3: De geschreven literatuur van 1596 tot 1923. Paramaribo: Uitgeverij Okopipi, 2002.
Samson, P.A. “Aantekeningen over kunst en vermaak in Suriname voor 1900.” De West-Indische Gids, Vol. 35(1955), pp. 154-165
Surinaamsche Almanak voor het Jaar 1840. Departement Paramaribo der Maatschappij Tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen, z.p. 1839.
(c) Sonja Boon, 2019