James Hewitt American composer born 1770-1827

James Hewitt American composer born 1770-1827

James Hewitt, like most early American pioneers of serious music,  was not born an American. Hewitt, who during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries established himself in both New York City and Boston as a successful composer-conductor and also a keen-minded publisher, was born in England on the fourth of June, 1770. 

James Hewitt American composer born 1770-1827

James Hewitt (June 4, 1770 – August 2, 1827) was an American conductor, composer and music publisher. Born in Dartmoor, England, he was known to have lived in London in 1791 and early 1792, but went to New York City in September of that year.

James Hewitt stayed in New York until 1811, conducting a theater orchestra and composing and arranging music for local ballad operas and musical events. He also gave lessons and sold musical instruments and publications in his ”musical repository”.

James Hewitt began participating in the musical activities of Boston as early as 1805, and moved there in 1811, pursuing the same activities as he had done in New York. For the rest of his life he traveled between the two cities.

After an unsuccessful operation in New York in early 1827, he was brought back to Boston, where he died a few months later. His place of burial is not known. Most of his publications were the works of British composers, including William Shield, James Hook and even Haydn and Mozart.

James Hewitt also published about 160 of his own works, including instrumental, keyboard, and vocal compositions. Like other American music teachers of the same era, he also produced several pedagogical books.

One of his most well-known works today is The Battle of Trenton, a keyboard sonata written in 1797 and dedicated to George Washington. This sonata contains numerous short sections with descriptive titles, such as ”The Army in Motion,” ”Attack—Cannons—Bomb,” ”Flight of the Hessians,” ”Trumpets of Victory,” and so forth, including one section using the tune ”Yankee Doodle.

”When the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick revived the piece in 1940, Time magazine commented that ”Though written for the most part in the measured, tinkling idiom of 18th-Century English salon music, The Battle of Trenton still preserved a smoldering crash and rumble reminiscent of the early works of Ludwig van Beethoven.”

The piece has been arranged for band and can be heard as performed by the Goldman Band on the album ”Footlifters – A Century of American Marches.” It was also recorded by organist E. Power Biggs, who narrated his own performance.

James Hewitt was especially influential in musical life of New York in the early nineteenth century. Four of his children became prominent musicians: his son John Hill Hewitt (1801–1890) was an important composer, his daughter Sophia Henrietta Emma Hewitt (1799–1845) was a well known concert pianist, his son James Lang Hewitt (1803–53) was a successful music publisher (married to the poet, Mary E. Hewitt), and another son George Washington Hewitt (1811–93) taught and composed music. His niece was soprano Eliza Biscaccianti.


James Hewitt learned the violin and the organ as a young man, and after arriving in the United States in 1792 he organized a series of concerts whose programs announced that he had previously played violin in the London court orchestra under Franz Joseph Haydn. The validity of this claim has been questioned, but it certainly served its purpose: very soon after arriving in the New World, Hewitt landed a job directing music activities at the Park Street Theatre in New York.

James Hewitt remained with that theater until 1808, dividing his time between his conducting and composing duties and the running of a music store. In 1811 Hewitt moved to Boston, where he played organ at the Trinity Church and oversaw the music and musicians of the Federal Street Theatre.

In 1817 or so it was back to New York for good, though he did travel often during his last years. He died while visiting Boston in 1827, but his musical spirit lived on through the successful musical careers of some of his children.

James Hewitt might or might not have ever played under Haydn. He definitely did, however, have a taste for the man’s music, performing and conducting it often during his early days in New York; in 1893 he presented the American premiere of Haydn’s Seven Last Words.

As a composer, James Hewitt was constrained by the commercial necessities of his time, and even if he had been skilled enough to compose large-scale concert music of a deep and serious kind, he never could have sold it.

So the music that he did compose is largely of lighter build: stage works like the Indian Chief (1794) and the Tars from Tripoli (1807) and programmatic instrumental compositions like the Overture in Nine Parts, Expressive of a Battle (1792), represent the taste of the time. James Hewitt did, however, compose a series of piano sonatas that, though hardly comparable in ingenuity with their European models, are better fare than most Americans of the day might have drawn up. He also penned several dozen songs and dances.

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