Reviving the Music of the Hudson Valley's Gilded Age
The passion project of a local professor shines a light on forgotten, historic tunes in settings like Lyndhurst and Olana.
Left to right: Elizabeth Gerbi, soprano; Christopher Brellochs, saxophone; and Cynthia Peterson, piano, at Montgomery Place.
Photo by Lowell Handler
When Dr. Christopher Brellochs moved to the Hudson Valley 11 years ago, he was more than a little stunned by the abundance of historic sites that line the Hudson. A former New York City resident who moved upstate to become the chair of the music program at Dutchess Community College, Brellochs admits he didn’t know what to expect when he relocated to Poughkeepsie.
“I was an absolute New York City snob,” he jokes. “I thought, ‘It’s got to be no-man’s land.’”
As time passed, however, Brellochs began to explore the region, eventually finding his way to historic sites like Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown and Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison. Sometimes, he’d chance his luck and ask the staff at each venue if he could play the piano that nearly always resided onsite. Although he often expected a no, he figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.
When he voiced the query at Crawford House in Newburgh one fateful day, he was pleasantly surprised to hear that coveted “yes.”
“Hearing the music in the place turns it from a museum experience to a time machine back into the past,” Brellochs observes. That afternoon was a magical one for him, since it was the day when he subconsciously formed the seedlings of an idea that he’d later voice to Dr. Pamela Edington, the president of Dutchess Community College. His passing wish to bring music to the Valley’s historic sites caught the president’s interest, and she suggested that Brellochs pursue it as a sabbatical project.
Brellochs took the hint and began to dive headfirst into what he titles “Music of the Gilded Age in the Hudson Valley.” As the name implies, the endeavor focuses on the period beginning after the Civil War around the 1860s, when music enlivened well-to-do households throughout the Hudson Valley. After selecting a house on which to focus, Brellochs begins by researching the music that might have been performed in that setting during the Gilded Age. He looks at local traditions and national innovations, factoring into consideration the introduction of new instruments and the popularity of now-forgotten composers. In the process, he often discovers music that has been all but forgotten throughout the years and adapts old-timey melodies to work with a variety of instruments.
“What I’m doing is trying to discover, uncover, and recover pieces from the time period,” he explains. Although he admits that not every composition can stand the test of time, “some of it deserves to be examined…adapted so it can be presented in these [historic] settings.”
Brellochs with Cynthia Peterson at Montgomery Place / Photo by Lowell Handler
In cases where the newly uncovered compositions deserve a second look, Brellochs approaches them from the lens of the time period in which they were first performed. He considers the instruments that would have been used to give voice to the notes and the settings in which they would have been played. He researches the history surrounding the pieces in libraries, online, and in local archives. When all is said and done, he comes away with a window into the Hudson Valley’s past, one that takes him back in time to spaces like Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie, where he sat with gloved hands searching through archived documents, and to Montgomery Place in Red Hook, where he discovered two unique compositions dedicated to the family that used to own it.
Just as each Hudson Valley setting requires a specialized research approach, so too does each require a different collaborative process. Brellochs enjoys working hand in hand with local educators and historians to research the backgrounds of works he wants to perform. One shining example of this is his partnership with the Newburgh Historical Society, which helped him shine the light on Ulysses J. Alsdorf, a forgotten composer whose grandfather was a freed slave.
“A lot of his pieces are really good,” Brellochs enthuses of the Newburgh artist. He’ll unveil his findings of Alsdorf, and on the music and lyrics of various members of the Vanderbilt Rockefeller family, later this year when he makes his way to a number of notable homes along the Hudson River, including Montgomery Place in Red Hook and St. Andrew’s Church in Beacon.
Thus far, Brellochs has presented his music and research at Crawford House in Newburgh, Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, and Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown. At each place, he explains his location-specific analysis on a select work or works of Gilded Age music and then performs them using instruments ranging from piano to harp and saxophone. A former band teacher, Brellochs is adept with the clarinet, saxophone, and piano, and has a basic grasp of most wind instruments. In addition to performing himself, he often collaborates with fellow musicians and instructors, including Cynthia Peterson, a Julliard-trained pianist and Dutchess Community College instructor, and Elizabeth Gerbi, a singer and professor at the college (and Brellochs’s wife).
Since each project is so unique, Brellochs makes a point to archive each with a trailer that spotlights the destinations and the music engrained in them. He’s also working on a documentary, which he plans to screen later this year at Lyndhurst Mansion’s “Mansions of the Gilded Age” symposium on April 28. In it, he captures behind-the-scenes footage of sections of the historic venues that are often off limits and delves deeper into the stories of the spaces through talks with town historians and site directors.
While Brellochs admittedly has a lot on his plate with the sabbatical project, he’s excited by the possibility of touching upon as many local histories as he can. Although he still needs to solidify content matter and dates, he’s in talks with Olana State Historic Site in Hudson to do two music-focused outdoor landscape tours and is working with Mills Mansion in Hyde Park to develop an upcoming concert or talk.
“I love these places a lot and I want people to go to them,” he explains of his motivation behind the overall endeavor. “This is the first time in 18 years I’m not teaching full-time…and I can do something unique for the community in which I’m living. I want to make the most of this.”
Want to learn more? Bookmark these upcoming “Music of the Gilded Age” lectures and performances:
March 16, 4 p.m.
At this free concert, Brellochs will perform on saxophone with Cynthia Peterson on piano. The music focuses on early American and French composers with ties to the Hudson Valley, including English immigrant Caryl Florio and American composers Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Ulysses J. Aldorf. Visitors can stick around for a meet-the-artist reception afterward as well.
Mansions of the Gilded Age, April 28
As part of Lyndhurst’s symposium, Brellochs will present his sabbatical documentary and take viewers on a musical journey through the Hudson Valley during the Gilded Age.
Montgomery Place, Red Hook
The Musical Life of the Livingstons at Montgomery Place performance, May 11, 3 p.m.
Music of the Gilded Age in the Hudson Valley lecture, May 18, 3 p.m.
The Gardener of Montgomery Place and the Composer of Newburgh outdoor performance, May 26, 4 p.m.
In a three-part series that spans the course of May, Brellochs takes an in-depth look at the music that defined the Livingston household at Montgomery Place during the Gilded Age. He creates an experience, taking his audience back more than 150 years to a time when Romantic sensibilities and glittering optimism shone through the tunes of the period’s artists. The first two events are indoors and ticketed with limited seating, while the third is free to the public.