Close menu Resources for... William & Mary
W&M menu close William & Mary
Directory Page Title

Katherine Preston

Professor Emerita

Email: [[kkpres]]

Education and Curriculum Vitae
  • B.A., Liberal Arts, The Evergreen State College
  • M.A. in Music and Musicology, University of Maryland-College Park
  • Ph.D., City University of New York
  • Curriculum Vitae

I decided on a "career" in musicology rather late in my college career: as an undergraduate, I had never heard of the discipline. I was always interested in the idea of connection, however, and discovered musicology as a discipline that has the potential of being inherently interdisciplinary. The field also allowed me to combine, quite nicely, my interests in music, history, and writing.

I have also always been interested in the idea of American music. I remember as child taking piano lessons and asking my teacher why she never gave me any compositions by Americans to study. Her response, "there aren't any," reflects a general American ignorance about our own musical heritage that persists to this day. I hope, through my work as a musicologist, to help illuminate the rich and unique musical heritage that all Americans share.

My particular fascination is with the place of music in the lives of Americans of the nineteenth century. I've studied the performance history of opera in the antebellum period, the work of journeymen musicians in Washington, D. C. during the last several decades of the nineteenth century, and the pioneering musical theatre work of Tony Harrigan and David Braham in the 1880s and 1890s, the activities of women managers of English-language opera troupes in the late nineteenth century, and the career of George Frederick Bristow (1825-1898), a composer, performer, teacher, and champion of American composers who was a pillar of the New York musical community for most of the nineteenth century.

Areas of Specialization

I recently retired from teaching. During my time as a university professor, however, I taught all aspects of western music history, but in particular music of the 18th and 19th centuries, the areas of my research strengths. I taught survey courses in various historical periods (the Baroque and Classic Periods, the Romantic Period) as well as such topical courses as Music in the United States, American Popular Music, Music in Film, and Musical Theatre. I also taught specialized courses like “Music of the Civil War Period,” “Musical Life in 1853: London, New York, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna,” “The Piano in the Nineteenth Century,” and "Music of the Civil War Era." I very much enjoyed teaching but after thirty years I decided to retire in order to concentrate more fully on research and writing.


I just completed a biography of the American composer George Frederick Bristow (1825-1898) for the American Composers Series published by the University of Illinois Press.  It is in production in fall 2019 and will be published in early 2020. Oxford University Press released my previous monograph in late 2017. Titled Opera for the People: Women Managers and English-Language Opera in Late Nineteenth-Century America, it is a comprehensive examination of opera performance in the vernacular in the United States, including the promotion of this repertory by women managers and its surprising popularity among middle-class Americans during the period 1860-1900. My next projects will be to take several chapters of that book and revise them as trade books, designed for a general audience rather than a scholarly one. I am particularly interested in revising the chapter on “the people’s prima donna,” Emma Abbott (1849-1891) and the chapter on the Boston Ideals (later the Bostonians), a company that performed both light opera and operettas.

I very interested concert life in general in mid-century America, and in 2011 completed an edition of Symphony No. 2 (The Jullien Symphony), written by George Bristow in 1853. Since publication, this symphony has been performed a number of times (including by the WMSO); it was also recorded by the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra of England and released as a cd in 2015, on New World Records, the leading label for American music recordings (you can hear this recording on YouTube). Also in 2011 I co-edited a facsimile edition of a bound volume of sheet music assembled by a young woman in Albany, New York in 1853. This work, titled Emily’s Songbook. Music in 1850s Albany, also appeared in 2011, and makes available to teachers, students, and scholars of music, dance, American Studies, and American history, a perfect example of mid-century American popular music. My interest in musical theatre of the nineteenth century also translates into a fascination with Broadway musicals and film music of the twentieth century, but as yet I have resisted the lure of scholarship in twentieth-century topics.

Fellowships and Grants

Prof. Katherine Preston speaks to “Doc” Watson, an icon of traditional American music, after presenting him with an Honorary Membership Award by the Society for American Music at their annual conference in Charlotte in 2012. Preston was President of the Society.

In Spring Semester 2009 I taught American music courses at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, as the Walt Whitman Distinguished Chair of American Culture, which is a Fulbright Fellowship award. During the academic year 2009-2010 I was on sabbatical, and spent the year as the William J. Bouwsma Fellow in Musicology at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. While there I worked on my book on English-language opera. For information about my appointment as a National Humanities Center Fellow for 2009-2010, see the news story here. In 2012 I was given a Plumeri Award for Faculty Excellence by the College, and in 2014 had the good fortune to be awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities research fellowship, which allowed me to complete Opera for the People. In recent years I have given public talks about women managers of English-language opera companies in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London (United Kingdom), Banff, Alberta (Canada); Canberra (Australia); the universities of Iowa, Richmond, and Michigan; the Conservatory of Music, University of Missouri/Kansas City, SUNY/Binghamton, and the Catholic University (Washington, D. C.). I also presented a Tack Faculty Lecture on this topic under the aegis of the College in Spring 2015, and in Spring 2019 gave a talk titled “Americans’ Forgotten Love Affair with Opera” as part of the selective American Musicological Society/Library of Congress lecture series at our national library. During the 2019-20 academic year I am serving as the Barr Institute Scholar Laureate at the Conservatory of Music, University of Missouri/Kansas City, where I am presenting papers, teaching some classes, and working with graduate students.

I am also a former President of the Society for American Music, an international organization of scholars interested in American music and music in America.

Even though I am retired, I am always interested in hearing from present or former students at William & Mary and elsewhere!

 Prof. Katherine Preston presenting her paper "Americans' Forgotten Love Affair with Opera," at the Library of Congress in April 2019, as part of the American Musicological Society/Library of Congress lecture series