Old Stoughton Musical Society
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AN HISTORICAL ADDRESS
By Samuel Bradley Noyes
[The following historical address was composed and delivered by Hon. Samuel Bradley Noyes, of Canton, at the Centennial Celebration of the Society, held in Stoughton in 1886. The address is supplemented by historical attenda, contributed by Mrs. Mary Matilda Jones, of Stoughton, and Sanford Waters Billings, of Sharon, President of the Society.]
It may not be familiar to you all to what great extent are we, the people of this part of Eastern Massachusetts, concerned in the History of Music in America. Through the persistent efforts of ancestors, to whom many of you here present today owe your existence, we are indebted not only for the formation of this Musical Society, but also for imparting through their earnest endeavors a love for the beautiful as it exists in the Art of Music.
The means at hand for these pioneers with which they could master the science required to be known in order that they might attempt musical writing, were few indeed. And this very scarcity of material with an utter lack of any guidance in the person of a teacher renders their success more and more worthy of our admiration.
The Pilgrims sought the shores of America with the hope of finding here what they were denied at home. Prior to their departure from England, the promptings of a bigotry begotten only by ignorance had caused not only religious liberty to suffer, but it attacked its music—the grandest aid of the Church service. Organs and Office Books were destroyed—singers driven from their places, and the instrumentalist refused the privilege of aiding in any way in the service of the Church. So when these persecuted ones sought a new home they began with the few hymns they possessed to worship where no fanaticism could forbid. So strongly were they attached to their hymns of praise —those, I mean, which they had brought with them—that the attempt later on to add new ones met with violent opposition. Although these songs may appear simple and even crude, for ever let us remember that these early, earnest endeavors of well meaning men were germs out of which grew our present musical attainments. Do they not deserve our admiration; and shall we not gratefully give it? We know that as soon as the condition of the country warranted it, European Artists began to come. Many were amateurs, who remained to display their skill and returned, but others came and remained here, taught the arts as they were taught in the great Art Centres of the world. These are the ones of whom we generally say that "to them we owe our present art condition." But it is not to be forgotten that the efforts of our own early inhabitants prepared the way for these European instructors. Had they come here and found no preparation for what they proposed to do, it is doubtless true that they would not have had the courage, or at least the patience to prepare the way, as the early Americans had done. All their endeavors—call them useful or useless in whatever proportion you may—still show that there existed among them a love for the Art of Music, a love so strong, so full of influence, that it prompted action, and the action brought its good results.
For one hundred years has that result manifested itself; may it not cease to do so for centuries to come, and that such a wish may be realized—it falls to our lot as the oldest musical organization in America to have ever in view the principles of its founders—that is to cherish the art to the full extent of our ability. As our means at hand are greater, so, also, will our result be greater in proportion. If we would successfully act on their principles, we need not necessarily do as they did. Art has changed within the century past, and we must be teachers of the new—not champions of the old. By doing their best, our ancestors gave us this organization, one of sufficient worth to see its centennial. May we so follow them that we also may be able to bequeath a century's life to it and pass it over into the keeping of our children for their care and transmission. "Ainsworth's Version of the Psalms" was brought by them to this country and used exclusively till 1640, and many of the psalms and tunes were so associated with their worship that they were unwilling to relinquish either; so that when the Bay Psalm Book (of which I will speak again) was introduced in New England, it was met with violent opposition and- the churches in Salem and vicinity did not relinquish Ainsworth till 1667, nor the church in Plymouth, where it was first used, until 1692.
It is interesting in the extreme to note the growth of the colonies in all its forms, but none the less as it concerns their musical life. A few there were, it is true, who held opinions as to the proper use of the art, which were narrow in the extreme, but the cause had on its side the clergy, and nearly all whose intellectual attainments permitted them to see the happy result which must grow out of the proper use of music as an aid in religious services.
Very numerous were the essays, discourses and sermons as they were variously styled, written apropos of the topic. The Rev. John Cotton was one to write about the music, and his circular, as it was called, was sent to all the churches. "When this was read, other objections and queries arose, namely—whether it was proper for one to sing and all the rest to join only in spirit, and saying Amen, or for the whole congregation to sing, whether women as well as men, or men alone should sing. Whether pagans (the unconverted) be permitted to sing with us, or church-members alone. Also whether it be lawful to sing psalms in metre devised by man, and whether it be lawful to read the psalm to be sung, and whether proper to learn new tunes which were uninspired." This and many other similar essays are now easily accessible, and though they betray the superficial attainments of the writers, judged on the matter of their musical education, they yet contain in every word an earnestness with which the early workers characterized themselves.
As one would naturally suppose, it was impossible for these people to practice the Art of Music even in their limited way and ever keep within the letter of the musical law. In fact, after a while they became so accustomed to singing in their own manner that a writer in the New England Chronicle in 1717 goes so far as to say, "Truly, I have a great jealousy that if we once begin to sing by note, the next thing will be to pray by rule, and preach by rule."
However, many of the better informed could plainly discern the evil effects which grew of this "ad libitum" manner of singing.
"About the commencement of the 18th century, music had been so much neglected that few congregations could sing more than four or live tunes, and these few, the learned divine, Rev. Thomas Walter of Roxbury, says in his book published in 1721, had become so mutilated, tortured and twisted, that the psalm singing had become a mere disorderly noise left to the mercy of unskilful throats to chop and alter, twist and change, according to their odd fancy, sounding like five hundred different tunes roared out at the same time, and so little in time that they were often one and two words apart, so hideous as to be bad beyond expression, and so drawling that sometimes they had to pause twice on one word to take a breath, and the decline had been so gradual that the very confusion and discord seemed to have become grateful to their ears, while melody sung in time and tune was offensive; and when it was heard that tunes were sung by note, they argued that the new way, as it was called, was an unknown tongue, not melodious as of old, made disturbance in the churches, a continuance of the designing to get money, required too much time, and made the young disorderly, the old way good enough."
However, many of the better informed and influential members determined to improve the method of singing in the most distinguished church in Boston—the Old South. Chief Justice Samuel Sewall, of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, was the precentor or leader of singing.
The towns of Boston, Cambridge, Bridgewater, Taunton, Dorchester, Charlestown, and others were among the first to begin the needed reform, and as you would suppose it was not long before a better state of things existed in matters relating to the music of the churches.
The next step that marks the line of improvement was the commencement of publishing music in New England. The first practical instruction-book published here seems to have been compiled by Rev. John Tufts, pastor of the Second Church of Newbury. He published in 1712 a book entitled—"A very plain and easy instruction to the art of singing psalm tunes, contrived," as he says in his quaint preface, "in such a manner as that the learner may attain the skill of singing them with the greatest ease and speed imaginable." This, you will note, was a sort of instruction-book, but previous to this we had published the "Bay Psalm Book," a volume now so extremely rare that there are but two or three extant. This volume was compiled by an association of New England ministers and approved by the churches, being something new, but as I have already said, it met with opposition from many, producing the same prejudices and religious scruples as in the earlier days. The Bay Psalm Book appeared in 1640, and so gained in favor that it went through 70 editions.
After the appearance of Rev. John Tufts' book, musical publication became of common occurrence. Many of the early ones were compilations from English works, or compilations from each other, hence nothing new save the opinion of the compiler as to how and why to be sung could appear in these books until the New Englander figured as composer.
One of the first, and perhaps most original composer, among the colonists, was William Billings, a native of Boston, born in 1746, who died at the city of his birth in 1800. He was a tanner, a very profitable business a century ago, and having a liking for music he became a chorus singer and was a regular and interested member of the Church Choir. He was by nature not only a thinker and experimenter, but a reasoner. He 'attempted to imitate the airs he most admired, and, if we are correctly informed, his sides of leather and walls of his room served as places whereon he drew his staff, and set his tune. From imitating airs, Billings advanced so far as to attempt to harmonize his melodies, and was so far successful—he perhaps being his own judge in the matter—that he was led to publish in 1770 a collection of his own compositions styled, "The New England Psalm Singer," or "American Chorister," containing a number of Psalm Tunes, Anthems and Canons in four and five parts; and then he adds parenthetically "never before published". To a modern student of counterpoint, it would seem that this step taken by Billings was madness. To rush into print an author in Canonic and Contrapuntal composition, with no teaching but such as he could pick up, would seem to many to be little short of madness.
But Billings had the advantage that his modern prototype would lack, that is—the musical public, of which he formed an important factor, was not capable of being critical to such a degree as to permanently injure the good result of his efforts.
Encouraged thus by the first "legitimate offspring of his brain"— as he himself affectionately called his first book,—Billings published a second called the "Singing Master's Assistant," a visible improvement over the "New England Psalm Singer."
It is both interesting and amusing to read the preface of each of these early music books published in the colonies, for by them as well as by the music following, can we judge of the musical education of the authors.
We can truly judge fairly of Billings in this manner, his opinion of the rules of musical composition are so explicitly set forth in his writing as in his music. He says in one place, "Perhaps it may be expected by some that I could say something concerning rules for composition, to these I answer that Nature is the best Dictator, for all the hard, dry studied rules that were ever prescribed will not enable any person to form an air any more than the bare knowledge of the four and twenty letters and strict grammatical rules will qualify a scholar for composing a piece of poetry, or properly adjusting a Tragedy without Genius."
As the New Englander became little by little hardened to the sight of seeing his name and tune in print, he broke from the company of his contemporaries at home and walked arm in arm with Handel, Dr. Burney, Sacchini, Purcell - if not worthy of the company, at least pleased, with the sensation. In fact, when composing once began, it was not long before it became "the thing to do." Whether genius for composing existed or not, compose they would, and compose they did.
But to return to Billings - besides being a pioneer of American Compositions - so was he of choirs, public singing schools and concerts. He is also credited with having introduced the pitch-pipe and viol into the Church Choir - a proceeding which had caused the venerable Evalyn in 1690 to exclaim, when he beheld a similar sight, that "It made music better suiting a tavern or play-house than a church."
In those early days when organs were not to be found in the churches, and when in a majority of cases no other instrument supplied its place, it often caused delay, even embarrassment to give the commencing tone of the hymn. The best and most confident singer would begin and thus lead on the rest. We find in the diary of Judge Samuel Sewall many references to the fact that he stood up in the Old South Church and guided the singing - and the singers, sometimes though well started, some mishap would befall and we find in his diary of 1717 the following: February 2, Lord's Day. "In the morning, I set "York" tune, and, in the second going over, the gallery carried it irresistibly to St. Davids - which discouraged me very much." Here again, if history is correct in what it chronicles, Billings came sixty years later to the rescue of those who set tunes, for we are told that to him is due the introduction of the pitch-pipe.
We give this prominence to Billings because he was of us, he came here, he kept a singing-school here, he sang at the houses, people old and young flocked to hear him sing, and his name was famous in all the churches.
No man ever produced such a change as he did, until in 1840 Lowell Mason had a similar experience in Boston. With Billings were associated many whose names are more than familiar to you; Samuel Holyoke, Oliver Holden, Timothy Swan; all united in the practice of music. One other, who belonged to you, Jacob ?"
French, a respected teacher, was born in Stoughton. He was a prolific composer, and his works were much admired in his time. It seems that we might stretch back our arms and touch the hands of those whose lives and works called us together today. What better legacy could they have left us, all of them devoted lovers of music ? They have bequeathed their work to us for our pleasure that we might praise as they did, through song. They gave the Society and its pleasures to us with the same feeling as we will pass it over to those who shall take our place.
Though our times and our education cause much to be changed, we yet have this in common with them—we can turn from our cares of business and unite in the pleasure that they united in, and may we be as true in its beneficence as they were.
Mozart, Clementi, Haydn, Pleyel and others, now famous, were then at different points on the ladder of fame. Beethoven was a youth of six when this Society was formed. In the year 1786, Mozart completed one of his finest operas, namely, "The Marriage of Figaro," followed soon after by the masterpiece, "Don Giovanni." The year 1786 saw the birth of Weber, the author of the universally known "Der Freischütz," it also marks the death of Sacchini; and perhaps more worthy ]« still of note is the fact that Haydn was—at the time when the formation of this Society was being considered—at work upon the Oratorio Creation, which was sung tonight. And in 1791, five years after the formation of this Society, Haydn produced in London the twelve sonatas which have made him immortal
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