Ben Franklin


Notes on Ben Franklin’s “March, Minuet and Capriccio” for String Orchestra

A unique, charming, clever and fascinating string quartet composed by Ben Franklin was discovered in 1945 in the Bibliotheque Nationale (Music Division) in Paris. The instrumentation – 3 violins and cello – was not standard in the 18th century nor were the unusual directions given to retune all the open strings of each instrument to provide 16 different open string pitches. To play this five movement dance suite, players have to bow only open strings to create melody and harmony without left hand fingering – like a handbell choir of strings!

Years ago, I obtained a copy of Franklin’s score from the Free Public Library of Philadelphia and reworked it so that my string quartet could recreate the hocket-like effect by fingering the required pitches so as not to have to retune all our open strings. We performed Franklin’s delightful suite for a meeting of American history teachers in North Carolina. Since then, I kept thinking, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if school children could play this music composed by one of our Founding Fathers? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who played the violin) did not leave us any music, but how exciting is it that Ben Franklin did!

During the recent Tercentennial of Franklin’s birth, I applied for a Faculty Grant from Mansfield University in Pennsylvania (where I teach) to arrange the Franklin music for string orchestra so that it could be played by school children in normal fingered form and heard in schools and other venues across the country. (My colleagues called it “The Ben and Ken Project”) I selected three of the five movements for this project in order to make a compact and attractive concert version for young people. I have not changed a single note or rhythm from the original (except to add an occasional B natural to avoid minor dominants). I doubled some pitches in order to accommodate the five parts of a string orchestra and filled in a few ‘empty’ spots. The key of F Major is the same as the original and nothing was “simplified” for young players, so that what Franklin wrote is what you get!

Franklin must have written this quartet as a way of entertaining himself and his amateur music-loving friends, who couldn’t play the string instruments, but would certainly be able to produce sound and rhythms with a bow on open strings. There is some controversy as to whether or not Franklin actually composed this work around 1778 while he was living in Paris. There is no mention of the Quartetto in his writing or correspondence and the manuscript is not in Franklin’s handwriting. However, there is nothing like it in the entire literature and I have no doubt that Franklin did compose this work to fulfill a challenge to add to his many interests and intellectual pursuits. Franklin penned a drinking song in his youth, published music, improved the Glass Harmonica (for which Mozart and Gluck wrote) and wrote an essay on the esthetics of music.

Have your students play this music as a way of reaching back to the 18th century and getting in touch with one of our most famous and influential Patriots. My hope is that this version of Franklin’s music will spark the interest and imagination of our children so that they will want to know more about our great history and historical figures.