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«Reformers and Resisters: Changing Tastes in American Protestant Church Music, 1800-1860 Plenary address presented at the Hymn Society conference, ...»

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Reformers and Resisters: Changing Tastes

in American Protestant Church Music, 1800-1860

Plenary address presented at the Hymn Society conference,

DePauw University, Indiana, July, 2006

Mark D. Rhoads, D.M.A.

Bethel University

In 1822 Christiana Tillson moved from Massachusetts to central Illinois. In

December of that year she attended church in a log schoolhouse near the frontier town of

Hillsboro—about 200 miles west of us today. As she entered, a preacher was leading the

congregation in song. He raised the hymn “When I Can Read My Title Clear” by “reading the first two lines of the verse... with an indescribable nasal twang” Then the congregation sang the hymn to the tune 'Old Grimes' [or “Auld Lang Syne”]. She even attempted to spell out the words of the hymn phonetically to approximate the local


'When I can read my titul clare, Tue mansheons in the skei, I'll bid farewell to everie fear, And wipe my weeping [eye].

Tillson told her grandchildren 50 years later that there were two preachers that morning;

one of the preachers was "somewhat logical." The other, a Methodist circuit rider, "would 'get happy,' clap his hands, froth at the mouth; the congregation responding, some groaning, some crying loudly, 'Amen,' some calling "Glory, glory, glory to God!'“ In looking back on these meeting she recalled one impression: “that of intense disgust.” 1 The encounter between this Congregationalist woman from Massachusetts and a frontier congregation—provides a view on the issues surrounding the reform movement in American Protestant church music during the first half of the 19th century. Christiana Tillson probably came from a congregation that had been on the cutting edge of what was new in church music since early colonial days. Her church-music sensibilities had been shaped by so called “scientific” music based on Handel, Haydn, and Mozart. Her view was a result of active reform, firmly established in most churches in urban centers of the Northeast by 1822. We can also observe that part of Tillson’s disgust was over the ardent display of enthusiasm—the shouting, the groaning, the crying out of “Amen!” She would have been used to an atmosphere of solemn dignity where outbursts of enthusiasm would have been horrifying.

Christiana Tillson’s experience with song in that small congregation, the lining out of the hymn sung to a popular tune, the nasal vocal quality, the disturbance of her more refined sensibilities regarding outward emotional displays, all signaled by her “intense disgust,” embodies the major questions being asked early in the 19th century:

What is the purpose of song? What song should we sing? How should we sing that song? Apparent in this little scene is evidence that not everyone answered these questions in the same way.

The skeletal remains of early 19th century musical reform in America are still visible today. They are scattered throughout our hymnals in the form of folk hymns—or in a Billings fuguing tune sung by our church choir. They are present when we sing Lowell Mason’s MISSIONARY HYMN or Thomas Hastings’ TOPLADY—or in reprinted shape-note tunebooks like The Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony. And shape-note singers dig up a few bones now and again with the occasional reminder of the role Lowell Mason played in removing fuging tunes, distinctive 18th century harmonies, and the shape-note system of note reading from Northern musical culture. There is always a certain passion in this reminder. In fact, I’ve observed that any time died-in-the-wool shape-note singers utter the name “Lowell Mason” they are obliged to spit three times over their left shoulder.

This morning I want to reassemble the bigger pieces of this skeleton. Because of the intervening years, the facts have been polluted and our understanding of the theological and cultural forces at work during that time can only be pieced together from old documents and interpretations by modern scholars. But there is enough evidence to put a fairly recognizable face on musical reform during this period and the cultural that predicted its successes and its failures. It’s a story that is interesting on its own merits, but also warrants being told because it might help explain the dynamics of church music reform that began for us about 30 years ago.

18th Century Beginnings

To understand the efforts of Lowell Mason and the other reformers we must understand the musical forms and practices of 18th century America they were trying to overthrow. The story begins early—about 1720—with the controversy over lining out—what Christiana Tillson heard in that little Hillsboro congregation.

The lining out of metrical psalmody was a well-entrenched practice in Britain by the time Isaac Watts published his Psalms of David in 1719. In the preface to this work he expressed concern that the practice was clouding the meaning of texts. He also wished that the singing “might not dwell so long on a single note... [as to] put the congregation quite out of breath in singing five or six stanzas.”2 The musical effect produced by lining out in the American colonies was notably observed in 1721 by the Massachusetts

tunebook compiler Thomas Walters when he said:

“Our tunes are, for want of a standard..., [are] left to the mercy of every unskillful throat to chop and alter, twist and change, according to their infinitely diverse, and no less odd, humors and fancies. I have observed in many places, one man is upon this note, while another is a note before him, which produces something so hideous and disorderly, as is beyond expression bad. I myself have twice in one note paused to take breath…. [It] sounds in the ears of a good judge, like five hundred different tunes roared out all at the same time.” Walters published this observation in his tunebook The Grounds and Rules of Music Explained, one of the first of many “singing-school” manuals designed to teach congregations to sing by note instead of by rote. The object of this instruction was to reestablish the standard tunes that had become unrecognizable or had actually merged with similar tunes because of the practice of embellishment and the “every-man-forhimself” approach to congregational singing. That some congregations held on to lining out is no surprise given how we tend to sacralize long-standing practices. But many congregations accepted the challenge of reform, and by the 1760s singing schools were well established throughout the colonies and lining out was the choice of only a few resisters.

As the music-reading proficiency of many singers increased so did the desire of the more proficient singers to establish choirs. As more and more churches acquiesced to choral singing in Sunday services, choirs demanded more complex anthems. Fuging tunes and anthems learned in singing school answered the immediate call. Church musicians depended on English compositions at first; but in 1770 William Billings published his first tunebook The New-England Psalm-Singer, introducing a distinctively

American take on the English model. Of his own fuging tunes Billing said that:

“It is well known there is more variety in one piece of fuging music, than in twenty pieces of plain song. While each part is straining for mastery, and sweetly contending for victory, the audience are most luxuriously entertained, and exceedingly delighted.... Now the solemn bass demands their attention, now the manly tenor, now the lofty counter, now the volatile treble – now here, now there, now here again. O enchanting! O ecstatic! Rush on, ye sons of harmony.” William Billings and other American composers like Daniel Read and Jeremiah Ingalls made their primary living at something other than being a musician. We know about these so-called Yankee Tunesmiths because of the numerous tunebooks they published.

But in the background, away from the established world of publishing and the more prominent churches in New England, Christians were singing religious verse to popular ballad tunes, a practice that was prevalent in England as early as the mid-16th century when it was criticized by the hymnwriter George Wither. He was concerned that “the name of our blessed Saviour [is] invocated and sung to those roguish tunes, which have formerly served for profane jiggs.3 Cotton Mather, minister at Boston’s Old North Church, suggested that since the people were so fond of ballad singing, it could be put to good use as a means of religious instruction. He was concerned that the minds and manners of many people had been "corrupted by the foolish airs and ballads which the Hawkers and Peddlers carry into all parts of the country." His solution was to "procure poeticall composures full of Piety, and such as may have a tendency to cause Truth and Goodness to be published and scattered into all corners of the land."4 Mather didn't have to look far for "composures full of Piety." You can imagine a woman working in her garden or a man plowing in the field singing a metrical Psalm to a “ballad tune.” Certainly the singing of “When I Can Read My Title Clear” to the popular tune “Old Grimes” that Christiana Tillson encountered in that little church in Hillsboro came from these roots.

The result of this spontaneous (or sometimes purposeful) pairing of religious text with a folk melody was the accumulation of a large body of folk hymns, which remained an oral tradition until they began to be published in the first decade of the 19th century.

So to listen in on Protestant church music in New England by the close of the Revolutionary War, we would hear varying sounds: some congregations have hung on tenaciously to the practice of lining out psalms. In rural areas or outside the church the practice of singing Psalms and hymns to ballad tunes was thriving. Most urban churches, however, had converted from the Old Way (or lining out) to Regular Singing by learning to read and sing the correct notes of the Psalm tunes in singing school. In these churches, choirs dominated, singing anthems, fuguing tunes and plain tunes by an increasing number American composers. Harmonies were greatly influenced by close attention to the melodic quality of each part rather than to the resulting chord progression.

Congregational participation had diminished although singing along with the choir was common.5 By the reports of the critics vocal tone was very harsh and nasal.

Conversion of Musical Taste

Within ten years of the signing of the Peace of Paris 1783 that officially ended hostilities between Britain and America, Andrew Law, a tunebook compiler and printer from Cheshire, Connecticut, set in motion what reformers hoped would be a conversion of musical taste in the fledgling country. In his tunebook The Musical Primer he laid out the complaints that would set the agenda followed by all early-19th century reformers including the most well-known reformers Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings.

Fundamental to the problem in Law’s thinking was bad singing, which he blamed for the deficiencies of American composers. He said that until singing can be “rendered smooth, persuasive, and melting,” and when all voices are “joined together...in the most perfect tune,” only then would it be possible to “distinguish between compositions of genuine merit.”6 And in following this argument he suggests that most American composition was “faulty” and thus unacceptable for corporate worship. (I quote) Hence the man of piety and principle, of taste and discernment in music, and hence, indeed, all, who entertain a sense of decency and decorum in devotion, are oftentimes offended with that lifeless and insipid, of that frivolous and frolicksome succession and combinations of sounds, so frequently introduced into churches, where all should be serious, animated, and devout.7 Beginning in 1794 Andrew Law ignored compositions by American composers and printed only selected British tunes. He linked the music of Handel and Madan and others with proper religious sentiments. We see here the beginnings of a tendency toward elitism—one that was fundamental to reform; to elevate European musical forms and practice over their American counterparts.8 Following Andrew Law, reformers throughout the first half of the 19th century considered the works of 18th -century American composers and their less refined English predecessors to be crude, uncultivated, inferior, and in bad taste. In his critique of William Billings Lowell Mason said that Billings “professes to be governed by no laws but those of his own fancy, and he rejects all those rules to which good taste and experience had led the best composers.” –Furthermore, Mason suggested that the popular composers who followed Billings, like Lewis Edson and Justin Morgan produced “the most silly and contemptible trash imaginable in the form of psalm tunes, preposterous and profane” and that this music “overspread the land like the locusts of Egypt.”9 The reformers’ objection to tunes usually related to what Lowell Mason called “an easy and popular (though often low and vulgar) flow of melody for Tenor voices”10 that was not conducive to reverence in church. And they were highly critical of using folk tunes and popular tunes, known then as “ballad tunes,” first fitted to secular texts. They felt that popular tunes would conjure up “profane associations” in the mind of the singer that would detract from the dignity of the sacred text.

But while certain tunes were under attack, the reformers were especially critical of the harmonies associated with the old songs. These harmonies were derived from a linear approach that gave equal importance to each part and contained bald parallelisms, crossing parts, clashing intervals, and what looked to the critics like odd chord progressions. The reformers considered the popular fuguing-tune structure to be merely entertainment and musically amateurish. In their view fuging tunes “tortur[ed] every note in the octave” so that they could not “affect the heart, nor inform the understanding.”11 In the minds of the reformers this music was of a “secular character,…too often feeble, without dignity, … without religious associations, and … quite unable to awaken or sustain a spirit of worship.”12 Instead, the reformers favored the European model, the thorough-bass structure that prevailed in the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Handel, which they hailed as “refined” and “scientific.”


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