Happy Birthday to Mildred Hill, born June 27, 1859.
Though her name isn’t familiar, Mildred Hill (1859-1916) composed what is arguably the most popular and recognizable melody sung today.
A musicologist, educator, and songwriter, Hill, along with her sister, Patty, composed a simple melody for teachers to use when welcoming their students to the classroom titled “Good Morning to All.” The lyrics were then changed to, “Happy Birthday to You” and the Hill Sister’s melody goes down in history – though, it is largely forgotten that the melody sung countless times each day throughout the United States, and the world, was composed by two women.
Even though melody is a staple of birthday celebrations, this tune is one example of Mildred Hill’s work, and doesn’t reflect the tremendous influence that she has had in the canon of Western art music.
As a musicologist she studied Black Spirituals and published her findings under the name Johann Tonsor. One article in particular made a great impact on approaches to American music – including greatly influencing Dvořák. Michael Beckerman spoke of the evidence her influence in an article that appeared in the New York Times in 2002. You can also read more in Beckerman’s book, New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer’s Inner Life. (Read a preview here.) Though Dvořák’s interpretation of “American” music is not always seen favorably (which Beckerman addresses), what is clear is that he first began experimenting after reading Hill’s (Tonsor’s) article – a copy of which is included with his papers today.
So, Happy Birthday, Mildred Hill! And thank you for a timeless tune and for important musicological work that demonstrates the value and importance of the inclusion of diverse musical traditions.