Born in London, he was the son of Joseph Carr and older brother of Thomas Carr. He was also the nephew of his namesake Benjamin Carr (1731–80), who ran an instrument-making and repair shop in London for over 20 years.
He studied organ with Charles Wesley and composition with Samuel Arnold. In 1793 he traveled to Philadelphia with a stage company, and a year later went with the same company to New York, where he stayed until 1797. Later that year he moved to Philadelphia, where he became a prominent member of the city’s musical life.
He was "decidedly the most important and prolific music publisher in America during the 1790s (as well as one of its most distinguished composers), conducting, in addition to his Philadelphia business, a New York branch from 1794 to 1797, when it was acquired by James Hewitt". In 1794 he began publishing "a new song every Monday". The initial offering, The Kentucky Volunteer, is noteworthy as the first song copyrighted under the new US Constitution. This song was composed by Carr's friend and fellow English immigrant, Raynor Taylor. This particular "each Monday" series, however, only lasted 5 weeks.
Carr was well-known as a teacher of keyboard and singing, and he served as organist and choirmaster at St Augustine's Catholic Church (1801–31) and at St Peter's Episcopal Church (1816–31). In 1820 he was one of the principal founders of the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, and he is known as the "Father of Philadelphia Music". Mrs. French, who had achieved a degree of fame as a singer, was one of his students.
Carr's best known orchestral work was the Federal Overture (1794), composed for theatrical audiences.
He published many of own 61 art songs in two serial anthologies, the Musical Journal for the Piano Forte (1800–04) and Carr’s Musical Miscellany in Occasional Numbers (1812–25). Also among his songs are several sets of ballads, including Six Ballads from The Lady of the Lake op.7, published in the same year (1810) as the poem by Sir Walter Scott on which they are based; the set contains the Hymn to the Virgin ("Ave Maria"), which is especially notable for its harp-like arpeggiated accompaniment. Carr’s most popular song was “The Little Sailor Boy” (1798). He was perhaps the first American composer to set a Shakespeare text to music, and his Hymn to the Virgin (1810) is generally considered one of the finest early American songs.
His piano music includes shorter sonatas, rondos and variation forms; much of it was written for pedagogical purposes, although a few works are more technically advanced. He also wrote several important pedagogical works, including the Lessons and Exercises in Vocal Music (c.1811) and The Analytical Instructor for the Piano Forte (1826).
printed works published in Philadelphia unless otherwise stated
Works for the stage
- Philander and Silvia, or Love Crown'd at Last (pastoral opera), London, Sadler's Wells, 16 Oct 1792
- The Caledonian Frolic (ballet), Philadelphia, New, 26 Feb 1794
- Irish Lili (ballet), Philadelphia, New, 9 July 1794
- Macbeth (incidental music), New York, 14 Jan 1795
- Poor Jack (ballet), New York, 7 April 1795
- The Archers (opera, W. Dunlap), New York, John Street, 18 April 1796
Arrangements of English operas with additional music by Carr
- S. Arnold: The Children in the Wood, Philadelphia, 24 Nov 1794
- C. Dibdin: The Deserter, New York, 19 May 1795
- Linn: Bourneville Castle, New York, 16 Jan 1797 [music by Arne]
- Holcroft: The Spanish Barber, 1800
- Misc. opera arias and incidental music
Songs and misc. vocal works
- Four Ballads (W. Shakespeare, J.E. Harwood) (1794)
- Three Ballads, op.2 (1799)
- Six Ballads from … The Lady of the Lake (W. Scott), op.7 (1810)
- Lessons and Exercises in Vocal Music, op.8 (Baltimore, ?1811)
- Four Ballads from … Rokeby (Scott), op.10 (Baltimore, 1813)
- The History of England, op.11 (Baltimore, ?1814)
- Musical Bagatelles, op.13 (c1820)
- Six Canzonets, op.14 (1824)
- numerous single songs
- Federal Overture, piano (1794)
- Six sonatas, piano (1796)
- Dead March and Monody for General Washington, piano and vocal score (Baltimore, 1799/1800)
- Three divertimentos, in Musical Journal for the Piano Forte, i (1800)
- Voluntary, organ (?1801)
- The Siege of Tripoli: Historical Naval Sonata, piano, op.4 (1804)
- Applicazione adolcita, piano, op.6 (1809)
- Six Progressive Sonatinas, piano, violin/flute ad lib, op.9 (Baltimore, ?1812)
- The Analytical Instructor, piano, op.15 (1826)
- further single works, including marches, waltzes, variations, etc.
Collections and editions
- Musical Journal for the Piano Forte (1800–04) [piano music and songs]
- Masses, Vespers, Litanies, Hymns, Psalms, Anthems & Motets (1805)
- Carr's Musical Miscellany
- Occasional Numbers (1812–25) [pf music and songs]
- A Collection of Chants and Tunes for the Episcopal Churches of Philadelphia (1816)
- The Chorister (1820)
- Lyricks (1825)
- Le clavecin (1825)
- Sacred Airs, in Six Numbers (1830)
- Penn Library Keffer Collection of Sheet Music University of Pennsylvania article about Benjamin Carr
- Free scores by Benjamin Carr at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
- Benjamin Carr at Find a Grave
- Finding aid to the Hunt-Berol Sheet Music Collection, 1700s-1900s, at Columbia University. Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
- Stephen Siek, "Benjamin Carr", Grove Music Online
- Wolfe, 1980, Early American Music Engraving and Printing, p. 43
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-03-28. Retrieved 2008-04-21.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Phono Archive
- Smith, 1986, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, 1st edition, p. 360
- Peter Dickinson et al., "Art Song", section 1, c1750–c1850, The Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition, vol. I, p. 209
- Dickinson, Peter; et al. (2013), "Art Song", in Garrett, Charles Hiroshi (ed.), The Grove Dictionary of American Music, I (Second ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 209, ISBN 978-0-19-999059-7
- Meyer, Eve R, ed. (1986), Benjamin Carr: Selected Secular and Sacred Songs, 15, Recent Researches in American Music, Middleton, Wisconsin: A-R Editions, ISBN 0-89579-204-4
- Siek, Stephen (2001). "Carr, Benjamin". In Root, Deane L. (ed.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Oxford University Press.
- Smith, Ronnie L. (1986), "Benjamin Carr", in Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, I (First ed.), London: Macmillan Press, pp. 360–361, ISBN 0-943818-36-2
- Sonneck, Oscar George Theodore (1945), A Bibliography of Early Secular American Music (18th Century), Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress Music Division
- Wolfe, Richard J. (1980), Early American Music Engraving and Printing: A History of Music Publishing in America from 1787 to 1825 with Commentary on Earlier and Later Practices, Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, ISBN 0-252-00726-3