From A History of American Classical Music

The following excerpts are reprinted from Chapter Two, “From Founding Through Revolution” of the book, A History of American Classical Music by Barrymore Laurence Scherer, pp. 6-15. Copyright (c) 2007 by Naxos Rights International Ltd. Used with permission of the publisher.

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    Zealously spreading Christianity wherever they ruled, the conquerors made a great effort to supplant the ancient and complicated Aztec traditions with Catholic rites. This included the musical element. By 1524 a Franciscan missionary, Pieter van Gent (1479-1572), known as Pedro de Gante, had established a school of music in Texcoco, formerly the second most important city-state of the Aztec empire. Father Pedro had been trained at the University of Louvain, in what was then Spanish Flanders. Assisted by fellow missionaries, he would teach his native students first to copy music from Spanish plainsong sources in his possession and after a year of this to read and perform plainsong; eventually he would teach them to play and even to make European musical instruments. The aim was to build a corps of native musicians to assist at church services.

    In 1539 the first printing press arrived in Mexico City, and in 1556 it was used to print an Ordinary of the Mass, the first printed musical volume in North America. A dozen more volumes followed between 1560 and 1589, containing portions of the Mass as well as hymns, psalms and Passiontide music.

    By the mid-sixteenth century other Spanish missionaries were building churches and monasteries throughout the territories that are now Florida, the Gulf states and California. Influenced by Pedro de Gante, they were teaching the local native Americans to sing the Roman Catholic Mass as well as non-liturgical music from those Mexico City publications. Later, European-born musicians who followed the missionaries were spurred on to compose their own settings of the Mass and of other portions of the liturgy for use in their parishes. In 1539, Canon Juan Xuarez was appointed the first maestro de capilla of Mexico City. He and his successor Hernando Franco were among the most important of these church musicians, the latter composing seven settings of the Magnificat in the great Spanish polyphonic tradition. Models were easily available to him as the cathedral in the capital of New Spain was well furnished with the works of Morales, Guerrero and Victoria, copied from the cathedral archives in Seville and Toledo.

    By this time French Huguenot emigrants were settling in Canadian Acacia and also along the Atlantic coast as far south as Florida, and the Protestant chorales they sang at worship probably constituted the earliest non-Hispanic body of song heard in North America. Somewhat later, beginning in 1585, the English arrived on North American soil. The initial settlement, at Roanoke, Virginia, didn’t last. But in 1607 Captain John Smith and his party founded the first permanent English settlement, at Jamestown. Although music had always been a part of English domestic life, these early colonists made no mention of music in their diaries or journals. Nonetheless we can assume that this doughty company sang their customary psalms at worship and staved off homesickness by singing rounds and catches round the campfire.

    The earliest description of English song in North America comes from further up the coast, in the Massachusetts Bay colony: even before the Pilgrims set sail from England in 1620, they had gathered at their pastor’s house in Southampton where, according to one of their number, Edward Window, who recorded this incident in his 1646 book Hypocrisie Unmasked, “we refreshed ourselves after tears, with singing of psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts, as well as with the voice … and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears heard.” The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay brought along copies of Henry Ainsworth’s Book of Psalms, compiled in 1612, which included thirty-nine psalm tunes of English, French and Dutch origin, and which they sang in their newly built churches. These Mayflower Pilgrims had been persecuted in England because they had literally separated themselves from the Anglican Church and its bishops. They were followed in 1630 by a second band of Pilgrims, who had remained faithful to the Church of England but were obliged to leave England because they wished to practice a simpler form of Anglicanism than that enforced by King Charles I. They too sang psalms in church, using a psalter known as “Sternhold and Hopkins,” after its editors. Originally published in Geneva in 1556, and expanded thereafter, Sternhold and Hopkins contained psalm texts translated and adapted into metrical verse. It also contained anonymous tunes to which they could be sung. One of these, a French tune, is still sung today – the so-called Old Hundredth or Doxology, beginning with the line, “All people that on earth do dwell.”

    The jog-trotting metrical texts of Sternhold and Hopkins had been devised to simplify and popularize psalm singing, but an increasing number of Massachusetts Bay clergy began to feel that the translations strayed too far from the meanings of the original Hebrew psalms. So they appointed three English-trained scholars, Richard Mather, Thomas Welde and John Eliot, to make new and more faithful translations of the psalter. Their work resulted in The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, printed, without tunes, in 1640 by Stephen Day of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Day had received his small printing press from England in 1638, the gift of a group of Puritans still in Holland, and this new Bay Psalm Book, as it was soon widely known, was the first noteworthy book published in the English-speaking colonies. Indeed, such was the enduring demand for the Bay Psalm Book that it reached its twenty-seventh American edition by 1750, by which time numerous editions had also been published back in England and Scotland. Worshippers using the earlier editions of the Bay Psalm Book usually fitted the metrical texts to the tunes in Sternhold and Hopkins or Ainsworth, but when the ninth edition appeared in 1698, it contained thirteen tunes copied from several editions of John Playford’s Introduction to the Skill of Music, first published in London in 1667. This volume was the first music book published in the English-speaking colonies.

    Apart from singing at worship, some Puritans also made music for sheer pleasure. After all, it had been a happy Elizabethan tradition in many English households to be able to read and play music, to possess a small collection of string instruments, and to enjoy playing and singing songs and dances around a table after the evening meal. That this tradition traveled aboard the Mayflower is evinced by the variety of instruments mentioned in wills and bequests made as the first generation of settlers aged and died. In 1664 we read of a treble viol left by one Nathaniell [sic] Rogers, and in 1678 of a bass viol left by the Reverend Edmund Browne. Even at this rigorous time in American history, music was an issue of the eternal generation gap, and around 1660 a Harvard college student, requesting a fiddle from his uncle in London, received the following reprimand: “I suspect that you seek [music] both too soon and too much…. if you be not excellent at it, it is worth nothing at all … [excepting] for your sisters, for whom it is more proper…. For them I say I had provided the instruments desired.” One can only imagine what a verbal cudgeling this poor undergraduate would have received had he also asked for dance lessons.

    Though secular music was hardly absent from the Puritan colonies, sacred music led the field. Nevertheless, a minority of Massachusetts Bay colonists maintained a dim view of music at worship, some extremists showing their dislike by conspicuously plugging their ears in church. Piety may not have been their only motivation, for, according to certain early commentaries, some congregational singing could be pretty hard on worshipful auriculars. Sometimes it wasn’t just the congregation’s lack of musicality that led to sour performance. Congregations were led in song by a preceptor, who would choose a tune to fit a psalm, then sing each phrase for the congregation to repeat after him. This was fine if the preceptor himself could hold a tune. But woe unto them whose preceptor had a tin ear. And worse, some preceptors, whether musical or not, liked to “help out” the tunes with embellishments of their own, which could lead the ensemble even further astray as it tried to repeat what it heard. Eventually travelers from one church to another could hear “Old Hundredth” sung a hundred different ways, none of them pretty. Thus we have George Hood writing in his pioneering History of Music in New England (1846) that, while “the number of tunes sung to psalms before 1690 rarely exceeded five or six … no two individuals sang them alike.” Every melody was “tortured and twisted” as “every inskillful [sic] throat saw fit.”

    Melodies weren’t all that got tangled. According to one of the tales that New Englanders loved to tell each other, a well-meaning but badly myopic precentor apologized to his congregation one Sunday for having difficulty reading out the first line of the hymn they were about to sing. “My eyes, indeed, are very blind,” he announced contritely. The choir, chomping at the bit, took this for their first line and sang it to the chosen tune. The mortified deacon emphatically responded, “I cannot see at all,” only to hear his choir sing this rhythmical comment too. Red-faced, he cried, “I really believe you are bewitched!” The choir sang it back to him, and concluded by singing back his final exclamation, “The mischief’s in you all!” as the poor man slumped down in his chair, completely embarrassed.

    In short, the hoary notion that the Puritans disliked music is false. In fact it was not they, but the older Quaker settlers, who forbade music in their society. Arid while the hardy New Englanders indulged in their public ululations, other settlers were bringing their music to different colonies along the Eastern seaboard. Sixteenth-century Spanish and French voyagers had created the first settlements in the Carolinas, superseded by the English, who claimed it in the name of Charles I as early as 1629. Following Louis XIV’s revocation in 1685 of the Edict of Nantes, which ended tolerance of French Protestants (Huguenots) within Catholic France, many Huguenots fled to the Protestant Carolinas, bringing with them their own Calvinist hymns. They were joined there later by Hussites (Moravian followers of Jan Huss), who brought their own musical traditions to their settlements at Wachovia, Bethabara and Salem (now Winston-Salem). To the Delaware River valley, originally a part of Dutch New Netherlands, came settlers from Sweden and Finland. Dutch traders and planters lived in New York and parts of Connecticut, even after the English took over in 1664, while many Swedes, Germans and Bohemians settled in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. Added to this polyglot polyphony, as a result of the arrival of the first slave ships in Virginia around 1619, was an African musical heritage that would exert a deep and vivacious influence upon America’s music in the centuries to come.

    Despite the anti-musical stand of the older Philadelphia Quakers, music flourished particularly well in Pennsylvania thanks to the influx of German Pietists – or reformed Lutherans. Among the first of them to arrive in America during the seventeenth century was a musically inclined pastor, Justus Falckner, who was responsible for getting an organ shipped to his community from Germany. Falckner believed in music’s power not only to attract native Americans to his flock, but also to help attract younger Quakers. When he became the first German to be ordained a minister in America, in 1703, the proceedings at his ceremony were accompanied not only by organ but by a small orchestra of strings, winds and timpani. Moreover the Pietists, locally called the Wissahickon Hermits, were already so well known for their musical gifts that they had been engaged to supply choral and instrumental music for the consecration of Philadelphia’s Old Swede’s Church three years earlier. The broad religious tolerance in Pennsylvania also attracted groups of Moravians from Central Europe – Hussites, like their fellow Moravians in North Carolina. Music, for them, was an essential expression of their souls and, once they established such towns as Bethlehem, Nazareth and Emmaus, their churches rang with a fervent, particularly touching style of music. Yet, though the Moravians were highly esteemed by their neighbors, their insularity prevented their music from having any widespread influence outside their community. If the northern colonists dutifully sang hymns and psalms, the southern colonies delighted in entertainments. There, genteel Huguenot and Anglican plantation owners of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas – many of them descended from aristocratic European families – maintained their taste for the gracious country life they had left behind. By 1722, and possibly earlier, Virginia’s elegant capital, Williamsburg, boasted the first playhouse in the colonies. There were balls and dances, with ensembles playing music imported from the homeland, and behind the welcoming porticos of southern manor houses the silvery timbre of the spinet delighted many a listener, especially when played by a comely young daughter of the house. In 1735 the genteel planters of Charleston, South Carolina, were regaled by the first opera to be performed in King George II’s American colonies: Flora, or Hob in the Well, a farce revolving around the mishaps of a country bumpkin. Imported from London, it was an English ballad opera, in which dialogue, in this case written by the celebrated English actor-manager and Shakespeare bowdlerizer Coney Cibber, was interspersed with songs adapted from popular tunes of the day.

    While there flourished in the Episcopalian South an increasingly cultivated musical life, efforts were made to raise the level at least of congregational singing in New England. The Reverend John Tufts of Boston started the ball rolling in 1721 by publishing A Very Plain and Easy Introduction to the Art of Singing Psalm Tunes. That same year saw the publication of America’s first music theory text, Thomas Walter’s The Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained.

    Even as the century progressed, some clergymen and the more conservative church congregations still resisted any kind of musical training, fearing that refined musical performance was the devil’s path to secularized worship. But, by the 1760s, singing schools and instruction books proliferated in urban and rural communities, while in cities such as Boston, Providence and Newport wealthy merchants with musical proclivities were having their own instruments shipped over from England.

    Newspapers of the period recorded a variety of musical activities. For instance, in December 1731 the Boston Weekly News Letter contained the announcement that “On Thursday the 30th … there will be performed a Concert of Music on sundry Instruments at Mr. Pelham’s great Room. … Tickets … at Five shillings each.” Not only was this Boston’s first public concert, it was also a telling social development in the colonies at a time when public concerts for paying audiences were only recently becoming customary in Europe. Soon public concerts would also become a feature of musical life in Philadelphia and New York. Indeed New York’s first recorded concert, in 1736, featured the organist Charles Theodore Pachelbel (1690-1750), son of the German organist and composer Johann Pachelbel (famous for his Canon in D major). Pachelbel had previously served as organist of Newport’s Trinity Church, and eventually settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was a leading musical figure until his death.

    There was an increasing demand for skilled musicians: in December 1758 the Newport Mercury, printed by Benjamin Franklin’s brother James, advertised that: ‘Any person who plays well on a VIOLIN, on application to the Printer hereof may be inform’d where he will meet with proper Encouragement.” In June 1759 the same paper advertised a shipment of goods

    Imported from the last Ships from London and Bristol, and to be sold by Jacob Richardson, Wholesale and Retail, At his shop in Brenton’s Row in Thames Street … Brass and Iron Jew’s Harps … English Flutes, Violins, Bows, Bridges, best Roman Violin Strings …

    A decade later Newport’s musical life was continuing to gain in strength; and in September 1769 the same paper carried an advertisement for a colonial antecedent of modern Broadway’s one-man show:

    This evening, at Mrs. Cowley’s Assembly Room in Church Lane, will be read the Beggar’s Opera by a person who has read and sung in most of the great towns in America. All the songs will be sung. He personates [sic] all the characters and enters into the various humors or passions of the Opera, as they change from one to another throughout the Opera. Tickets to be had at the printing office at half a dollar each.

    John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a pithy send-up of Italian opera and early Georgian morality, had been the great London sensation of 1728, and this performance in Newport reveals not only its lasting popularity some forty years later but also the continuing strength of the musical ties between Britain and her colonies.

    In 1770, less than a year after this Newport performance of Gay’s ballad opera, an even more important American premiere took place in New York. Its leading musical figure, William Tuckey, a London-born organist, composer and choir director, led the first American performance of Handel’s Messiah – or at least the overture and sixteen numbers from the score. Even Handel’s native Germany had to wait two more years to hear it.

    Nevertheless, by 1770 relations between Britain and her American plantations were growing increasingly strained on account of the levying of unwelcome taxes to pay for the heavy debt Britain had incurred in defending her colonists in the French and Indian wars. That year saw the publication of the first truly original American songbook: The New-England Psalm-Singer, or, American Chorister, by William Billings, a Boston tanner and self-taught composer and singer. Instead of merely copying melodies from British tune books, Billings presented 727 of his own melodies for psalms, hymns, anthems and canons set for four unaccompanied voices. The plates for the musical portions of the volume were engraved by the silversmith and patriot Paul Revere. To give a truly American flavor to his work, Billings named many of his hymn tunes after local places and landmarks, such as “Amherst,” ‘Dedham” and “Old Brick” (church). Billings, whose four-part canon “When Jesus Wept” boasts a truly beautiful melody, followed this work with a second collection, The Singing Master’s Assistant, in 1778. America was bound up in the Revolutionary War by then, and the contents included several fiercely patriotic numbers. Billings’ rugged tunefulness, his unpretentious attitude and his practical sensibility made him the dean of the “Yankee tunesmiths” who flourished in New England during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, writing and compiling music for the numerous music schools that had sprung up in this part of the country. The most popular of their pieces were usually the so-called fuging tunes, with their imitative entries for each voice. Many of these Yankee tunesmiths were part-time musicians, among them such figures as Samuel Holyoke, Jeremiah Ingalls and the aptly named tavernkeeper Supply Belcher, who moved northward from Stoughton, Massachusetts, to the woodlands where he became renowned as the “Handel of Maine.” Yet, of all their productions, Billings’ Neil-England Psalm-Singer remains a landmark of American choral song.