Father of American church music
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.