NEWPORT — Would you like to listen to the Priscilla March composed by Tom Clark in 1895? That's what passengers on the Gilded Age steamship, the Priscilla, listened to as they traveled between Fall River, Newport and New York on the former Fall River Line.
There was a passenger railroad line from Fall River to Boston in those days that completed the Boston-to-New York transportation link. The Fall River Line, which operated between 1847 and 1937, had luxurious steamboats that featured bands to entertain guests.
Stickney finds the sheet music of historic pieces, puts them note-by-note into an online sound editing program composers use then, thanks to technology, the historic music becomes available for high-quality listening.
Stickney is a musician who plays low brass, like trombone and tuba, and has a doctorate in musical arts from Rutgers University.
He is also a conductor and has taught music at the college level for 20 years, mainly at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire and Southern Utah University. He grew up in Portsmouth and is a 1991 graduate of Portsmouth High School.
“I moved a lot since high school, but I spent every summer here working for the Newport Music Festival, now called Newport Classical,” he said. “I worked on their production crew for 29 years and actually ran their productions for 20 of those years. It was a fun job with good people.”
Since returning full time to Aquidneck Island in 2019, he has been working part time for the Preservation Society of Newport County, conducting for a group in Maine and trying to build his Historic Music of Newport initiative while conducting research.
“Right now, I am working on marches by Joseph Peckham, who was a choir director at Channing Memorial Church and a member of the Naval Training Station band,” Stickney said. “His obituary says he was a composer, so I started poking around. The Library of Congress has 40 marches on microfilm that he wrote, hundreds of pages of sheet music.”
Stickney purchased that sheet music so he could recreate the sounds of the historic marches. Peckham lived from 1848 to 1902 and wrote the "Our Fallen Heroes" Funeral March in the 1890s. That march was performed by "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band during the funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Stickney is targeting music and musicians with Newport connections between the years of 1850 and 1920. When he started working for the Preservation Society, he located a concert program that listed a piece written for Chateau-Sur-Mer in the 1850s.
“That got me interested in what was played in the mansions since I spend a lot of time in them,” he said. “To this day, I have not found that piece. But I started finding music by the orchestra that was performing here, the Germanian Musical Society, who were young Germans who toured the country. They performed during a lot of summers in Newport in the 1850s.”
Stickney has located over 600 historical music pieces with a Newport connection
“Some were written in Newport, some were written about Newport, and others were just performed at places like the Casino or in the parks by different orchestras” he said. “I found a lot of programs in The Newport Daily News, Newport Mercury, and even the New York Times archives.”
After he locates the sheet music, he not only creates a recording of it but also videos using photos from the Library of Congress, the Providence Public Library’s digital archives or some other public domain source.
At present he has made more than 60 videos for the Historic Music of Newport YouTube channel. There is a YouTube button at the top of his website, historicmusicofnewport.com, that links to the videos with the music..
The work has a lot of costs, so at the urging of friends Stickney started a Historic Music of Newport GoFundMe site shortly before Christmas with the aim of raising $3,000. The account had $690 in it this week.
“I have to purchase a lot of the music like the Peckham marches from the Library of Congress that were not cheap,” he said. “I find the music anywhere from England, to Utah, to Washington D.C."
Random colleges and universities have had a piece here and there written by someone who lived in Newport. A library in England has World War I era music composed in Newport.
“It’s only at that library — not sure how that happened,” Stickney said. “I also find music here in Newport. The local people have been very good and very kind, like at the Newport Historical Society, Redwood Library, Museum of Irish History, Fort Adams and, of course, the Preservation Society. They have been great resources and have helped me without cost.”
Live performances and museum are goals for the project
One of Stickney's limitations is that he has music that includes singers. He would like to hire a woman from upstate New York who specializes in Gilded Age singing for his recordings.
“She has a phenomenal voice,” he said.
“I’d like to produce my own performances of this music at different venues around town,” Stickney said. “I would have to pay musicians and that would cost money.”
With funding, he also could make his website better, but his vision goes beyond these initial steps.
“Eventually, I’d like to create a local Museum of the History of Music in Newport,” he said. “We have jazz, folk and classical, but our music history goes way beyond that. Fort Adams had bands playing in the 1850s and they were premier musicians from around the world.”
“People came to the U.S. and joined the Army as musicians and played in the bands of the artillery,” he said. “I have the names of hundreds of musicians with Newport roots, from the Army, the Navy, and local talent. I’m starting to figure out their lives to create a database.”
His small museum could hold all the hard copy music, musical postcards of bands who played at the Naval Station in the early 1900s, and other things he has collected. He would create a nonprofit Historic Music of Newport organization so this work and music can continue.
“It’s a very different project,” he concluded.
This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: Gilded Age Newport RI: Mark Stickney re-creates music from 1800s