Fa­ther of Amer­i­can church mu­sic

The Covington News - - OPINION -

When you think of “Amer­i­can Mu­sic,” your mind goes back to the mu­si­cal cul­ture that be­gan with the col­o­niza­tion of the New World, mov­ing to the present. Be­fore then, how­ever, the roots of Amer­i­can mu­sic were al­ready grow­ing in parts of the con­ti­nent among Span­ish mis­sions around the mid­dle of the 1500s.

Those were the times when the main source of mu­sic was the Ro­man Catholic Church in Mex­ico, the Caribbean Is­lands, and Florida, which in­cluded mu­sic schools and choirs.

There was one ex­cep­tion: A small group of French Huguenots set­tled in Florida in 1562, bring­ing with them the Genevan Psalter. While on the con­ti­nent only three years, th­ese Huguenots taught French tunes to the Amer­i­can In­di­ans.

Time passed. Then came New Eng­land Psalmody, in­tro­duced by the Pil­grims at Ply­mouth in 1620. Th­ese set­tlers used a psalter pub­lished by Henry Ainsworth at Am­s­ter­dam in 1612; a book with only 39 tunes, with a Euro­pean folk style.

Around 1630 the Mas­sachusetts Bay Colony used the psalm book com­piled by John Hop­kins and Thomas Sern­bold. When the two colonies merged in 1640, a newer ver­sion was cre­ated and be­came known as The Bay Psalm Book, be­lieved to be the first book printed in the English colonies.

By the time the English colonists landed on the coast of South Carolina, the New World was ready for mu­si­cal in­no­va­tion; and it hap­pened.

James Oglethorpe, the leader of the 13th colony, ex­plored the re­gion and found a beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral par­adise near a smooth­flow­ing river that ran out through the marshes to the sea. He was en­thralled with this won­der­land, bloom­ing with yel­low jas­mine, with birds by the thou­sands, and green and golden gar­lands all around.

He called the place Savannah. It was here that a new and undy­ing mu­sic would be born; mu­sic cre­ated for the Church

Dur­ing the 1700s, choirs and mu­si­cal in­stru­ments in the Churches were prac­ti­cally un­known, and most of the psalms were sung to a small col­lec­tion of tunes, which were passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion by oral tra­di­tion.

As or­gans and choirs made their ad­vent, the ar­chi­tec­ture of the churches fol­lowed a de­sign that placed the or­gan, or other wood­wind in­stru­ments, and the choir in a rear bal­cony. Most of the singers were trained in singing schools led by trav­el­ing mu­sic teach­ers. All the world soon changed. Dur­ing Ge­or­gia’s colo­nial pe­riod, Amer­i­can Church mu­sic flour­ished un­der the guid­ance and mu­si­cal tal­ent of John and Charles Wesley. John re­leased his first Col­lec­tion of Psalms and Hymns in Savannah in 1737.

The winds of change could be felt; some thought it weird and strange; oth­ers wel­comed it as new and won­der­ful wave of wor­ship.

Hymn singing be­came wide­spread, es­pe­cially un­der the dy­namic preach­ing of Ge­orge White­field, the Calvin­ist Methodist who was as­so­ci­ated with the Wes­leys. Crowds of up to 25,000, meet­ing in open air lo­ca­tions along the coast of Ge­or­gia, were re­ported to have heard White­field, whose elo­quent and com­mand­ing voice would be heard for miles around, even above the sound of the waves beat­ing upon the shore.

As al­ways, there was plenty of singing.

Af­ter the gen­er­a­tions rolled to the end of the cen­tury, check­ered with con­flicts, strug­gles and wars, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion, there ap­peared the man who would com­bine the va­grant mu­si­cal notes into a new har­mony.

His name was Lowell Ma­son.

Ar­riv­ing in Savannah in 1812 at the age of 20, he found it easy to get a job as a bank clerk. He soon be­came ac­tive in the so­cial and re­li­gious life of the gilded city. Ac­tive in the Church, he soon be­came su­per­in­ten­dent of the Savannah Sab­bath School, and Sec­re­tary of the Savannah Mis­sion­ary So­ci­ety, based in In­de­pen­dent Pres­by­te­rian Church.

Ma­son’s mu­si­cal in­ter­est led him to study har­mony and mu­sic com­po­si­tion with Fred­er­ick Abel, and he soon was asked to serve the Church as or­gan­ist. This and his other po­si­tions he held in the Church un­til he re­turned to New Eng­land in 1827. The city of Savannah, the Church, and his as­so­ci­a­tions in Ge­or­gia, be­came the in­spi­ra­tion point for Ma­son’s in­ven­tive ge­nius.

Like the notes which mark the melody of a hymn, the care­fully de­signed parks, the stone streets, the paved side­walks, seemed to play a med­ley all their own, grac­ing his own mu­sic with a cap­ti­vat­ing charm.

Walk­ing un­der the canopy of the moss-laden oak trees, and hear­ing the sounds of na­ture singing their litany of love, his deep­est as­pi­ra­tions were touched.

The ef­fect was amaz­ing. There were the early years of his life that gave birth to a spe­cial kind of mu­sic for the Church. Even­tu­ally, he achieved sev­eral ti­tles, one of which was The Fa­ther of Singing Among Chil­dren.

With a strong em­pha­sis on young peo­ple, Ma­son or­ga­nized a school for the study of sa­cred mu­sic. Un­like the Church mu­sic of the 1700s, which fea­tured psalms with em­bel­lish­ments, and no strict rules of no­ta­tion, Ma­son’s mu­sic was fash­ioned af­ter the shape no­ta­tion move­ment, out of which came the Amer­i­can folk hymnody and the Sa­cred Harpers.

While in Savannah, Ma­son wrote many hymns, in­clud­ing the mu­sic for Bishop Regi­nald Huber’s poem, “From Green­land’s Icy Moun­tains.”

Born in Med­field, Mas­sachusetts, Jan­uary 8, 1792, he be­gan his mu­si­cal ca­reer study­ing singing un­der the tu­tor­ship of Amos Al­bee and Oliver Shaw. At age 16, he was choir di­rec­tor at a Church in Med­field, un­til he moved to Savannah in 1812.

Re­turn­ing to Mas­sachusetts in 1827, he be­came the pres­i­dent of the Han­del and Hy­den So­ci­ety, and taught in the pub­lic schools. He founded, with Ge­orge Webb, the Bos­ton Academy of Mu­sic in 1833, and was su­per­in­ten­dent of pub­lic schools in Bos­ton from 1837 till 1845.

Fa­mous for such hymns as “Nearer My God To Thee,” and “My Faith Looks Up To Thee,” Ma­son wrote hun­dreds of songs and hymns, many of which ap­pear in Church hym­nals through­out the world. He died in Orange, New Jer­sey, in 1872. He left over 800 manuscripts of hymns and 700 vol­umes of hymnody to Yale Col­lege af­ter his death.

On a mon­u­ment in Savannah, Ma­son is named: “A Land­mark of Amer­i­can Mu­sic,” by the Na­tional Mu­sic Coun­cil and the Ge­or­gia Mu­sic Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion.

This dis­tin­guished com­poser and mu­sic ed­u­ca­tor, whose adopted home was Ge­or­gia, and whose early de­vel­op­ment as a mu­si­cian was fash­ioned in Savannah, is rec­og­nized through­out the world as The Fa­ther of Amer­i­can Church Mu­sic.

Clifford Brew­ton


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