By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED)
“His music fits right into the genre of salon music – I can see why it was so successful in its day.” said Stephen Swanson, a freelance pianist and choir master based in St. Paul, Minn.
Swanson is referring to Dr. Thomas Van Dyke Wiesenthal, a naval physician who more than dabbled as a composer of popular song before his death 185 years ago.
Recently Swanson has plucked this obscure musical doctor from the proverbial dustbin and with the help of singers Casey Lankow and Kathlyn Larson has interpreted some of Wiesenthal’s most notable works—most of which have never been recorded.
The New Grove Dictionary of American Music credits Wiesenthal as an early American composer of folk music and one of the “first Americans to write in a simple, direct style.” Some of these pioneering works include: “Ingle-Side,” a Scotch ballad (1826); “A Hymn to the Evening Star” (1821) an adaptation of a poem by Lord Byron; “Laurette,” an Italian dance for pianoforte (1819); and “In a Far Distant Clime” (1819) with lyrics by the composer’s shipmate Capt. Robert T. Spence, USN (1785-1826).
Wiesenthal was a third-generation doctor born in Chestertown, Md., in 1790. His grandfather, Charles Frederick, had been a physician to Frederick the Great prior to immigrating to the United States and founding the Maryland Medical Society. Wiesenthal’s father Andrew was an anatomist and medical educator. With this pedigree it was no surprise that Thomas would also answer the call of medicine.
Following a medical apprenticeship, Wiesenthal served briefly as a surgeon-major with the 6th infantry, U.S. Army before transferring to the Navy. On December 10, 1814, Wiesenthal obtained a Navy commission as a surgeon’s mate.
Over the next fifteen years, he would serve aboard USS Java, Mediterranean Squadron (1815-1817); USS Independence (1817-1819); at the Marine Barracks, Charlestown, Mass. (1819-1821); aboard USS Alligator (1822-1823); at the Baltimore Naval Station (1823-1824; 1825-1826); aboard USS Hornet (1824-1825); and at Naval Hospital Norfolk, Va. (1826-1829). Along the way, he wrote some 40 songs ranging from hymns to instrumental dances to ornate ariettas.
Many of his compositions were published by Benjamin Carr and Gottlieb Graupner, each of whom were noted composers and proprietors of two of the largest music publishing houses in the United States. The published scores would have been equivalent to the vinyl records of their day and played by amateur musicians in American parlors as their friends and families gathered around. The music would have also earned Wiesenthal a supplemental income to a meager $30 a month income as a surgeon’s mate.
Swanson acknowledges that Wiesenthal’s compositions can be appreciated on multiple levels. “While the melodies and structure are very accessible to the popular audience that would have been his main market, he employs subtle harmonic features that respond to the nuances of text in a way that stretches the musical language of the time,” said Swanson. “It’s a little reminiscent of [Franz] Schubert’s art song in places.”
Sadly, neither Wiesenthal’s military nor his musical career would ever be fully realized. Plagued by ill-health including epilepsy and most likely long-term effects of malaria, and no longer able to serve at sea, Wiesenthal would resign his commission in 1829. Four years later—at the age of 43—he would die in Portsmouth, Va., leaving a wife and five children behind.
Gone, but hopefully not forgotten. At least thanks to Swanson, Wiesenthal has a chance of second act.
Links to Swanson’s recordings:
In a Far Distant Clime (1819)
Away! Away We Bound O’er the Deep (1831)