Like many young women from prosperous colonial families, Eliza Schuyler had musical training, and played the fortepiano (a predecessor of the modern piano). But while today's music lessons are all about personal expression, in the 18thc they were an important part of a lady's ornamental "accomplishments." While in the long run, being able to sing or play an instrument might not prove as necessary as keeping housekeeping accounts or overseeing a staff of servants, but it was a way for a young woman to draw the admiring attention of eligible bachelors.
General Philip Schuyler, Eliza's father, was known for his hospitality. The family's large brick mansion - known then as The Pastures - drew guests to Albany, NY from all the other colonies as well as from Europe. Visitors praised the general's generosity, the splendor of his house, the richness of the meals - and the beauty and talents of his daughters. After supper, Eliza and her sisters provided the elegant entertainment, playing and singing and delighting their parents' guests.
For young Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, music was something he had always enjoyed and valued, but had never been part of his own impoverished upbringing. He made his first visit to the Schuyler home in the early winter of 1777, and while there's some debate as to whether he met Eliza then or later in Morristown, NJ, I'm siding with this as the time of their first meeting.
Alexander was on a mission ordered by General Washington, and he'd ridden long and fast to reach upstate New York in the shortest time possible. He had already been tested by a long, discouraging autumn as the Continental Army had lost hard battles and barely evaded the British, and by the time he reached Albany, he was exhausted, and he was unwell. What comfort he must have found in Eliza's music, her face lit by candlelight as her hands moved gracefully over the keys: peace and solace and beauty, and perhaps the first stirrings of love as well.
This fortepiano now stands in family parlor of the Schuyler Mansion in Albany; you can see a copy of Eliza's portrait by Ralph Earl hanging on the wall in the background. While it's not the same instrument that Eliza played in 1777, it is a Schuyler family piece from the same era, and likely similar to the one she played.
Can't you imagine her returning to the chair, her silk skirts making a gentle rustle as she sits? She smiles over her shoulder as she settles the music before her and touches the keys lightly, testing them. Standing to one side, Alexander waits, his gaze never leaving her slender figure, and as she finally begins to play, the notes echo sweetly in the room. And finally he, too, smiles....
Photograph ©2017 by Susan Holloway Scott
Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.