The Sabbath in Puritan New England, 1891
by Alice Morse Earle, Seventh Edition, To the Memory of my Mother Mother
Of all the dismal accompaniments of public worship in the early days of New England, the music was the most hopelessly forlorn,--not alone from the confused versifications of the Psalms which were used, but from the mournful monotony of the few known tunes and the horrible manner in which those tunes were sung. It was not much better in old England. In 1676 Master Mace wrote of the singing in English churches, "'T is sad to hear what whining, toling, yelling or shreaking there is in our country congregations."
A few feeble efforts were made in America at the beginning of the eighteenth century to attempt to guide the singing. The edition of 1698 of "The Bay Psalm-Book" had "Some few Directions" regarding the singing added on the last pages of the book, and simple enough they were in matter if not in form. They commence, "First, observe how many note-compass the tune is next the place of your first note, and how many notes above and below that so as you may begin the tune of your first note, as the rest may be sung in the compass of your and the peoples voices without Squeaking above or Grumbling below."
This "Squeaking above and Grumbling below" had become far too frequent in the churches; Judge Sewall writes often with much self-reproach of his failure in "setting the tune," and also records with pride when he "set the psalm well." Here is his pathetic record of one of his mistakes: "He spake to me to set the tune. I intended Windsor and fell into High Dutch, and then essaying to set another tune went into a Key much to high. So I pray'd to Mr. White to set it which he did well. Litchfield Tune. The Lord Humble me and Instruct me that I should be the occasion of any interruption in the worship of God."
The singing at the time must have been bad beyond belief; how much of its atrocity was attributable to the use of "The Bay Psalm-Book," cannot now be known. The great length of many of the psalms in that book was a fatal barrier to any successful effort to have good singing. Some of them were one hundred and thirty lines long, and occupied, when lined and sung, a full half-hour, during which the patient congregation stood. It is told of Dr. West, who preached in Dartmouth in 1726, that he forgot one Sabbath Day to bring his sermon to meeting. He gave out a psalm, walked a quarter of a mile to his house, got his sermon, and was back in his pulpit long before the psalm was finished. The irregularity of the rhythm in "The Bay Psalm Book" must also have been a serious difficulty to overcome. Here is the rendering given of the 133d Psalm:--
1. How good and sweet to see
i'ts for bretheren to dwell
together in unitee:
2. Its like choice oyle that fell
the head upon
that down did flow
the beard unto
beard of Aron:
The skirts of his garment
that unto them went down:
3. Like Hermons dews descent
Sions mountains upon
for there to bee
the Lords blessing
life aye lasting
How this contorted song could have been sung even to the simplest tune by unskilled singers who possessed no guiding notes of music is difficult to comprehend. Small wonder that Judge Sewall was forced to enter in his diary, "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." We can fancy him stamping his foot, beating time, and roaring York at the top of his old lungs, and being overcome by the strong-voiced gallery, and at last sadly succumbing to St. David's. Again he writes: "I set York tune and the Congregation went out of it into St. Davids in the very 2nd going over. They did the same 3 weeks before. This is the 2nd Sign. It seems to me an intimation for me to resign the Praecentor's Place to a better Voice. I have through the Divine Long suffering and Favour done it for 24 years and now God in his Providence seems to call me off, my voice being enfeebled." Still a third time he "set Windsor tune;" they "ran over into Oxford do what I would." These unseemly "running overs" became so common that ere long each singer "set the tune" at his own will and the loudest-voiced carried the day. A writer of the time, Rev. Thomas Walter, says of this reign of concordia discors: "The tunes are now miserably tortured and twisted and quavered, in some Churches, into a horrid Medly of confused and disorderly Voices. Our tunes are left to the Mercy of every unskilful Throat to chop and alter, to twist and change, according to their infinitely divers and no less Odd Humours and Fancies. I have myself paused twice in one note to take breath. No two Men in the Congregation quaver alike or together, it sounds in the Ears of a Good Judge like five hundred different Tunes roared out at the same Time, with perpetual Interfearings with one another."
Still, confused and poor as was the singing, it was a source of pure and unceasing delight to the Puritan colonists,--one of the rare pleasures they possessed,--a foretaste of heaven;
"for all we know
Of what the blessed do above
Is that they sing and that they love."
And to even that remnant of music--their few jumbled cacophonous melodies--they clung with a devotion almost phenomenal.
Nor should we underrate the cohesive power that psalm-singing proved in the early communities; it was one of the most potent influences in gathering and holding the colonists together in love. And they reverenced their poor halting tunes in a way quite beyond our modern power of fathoming. Whenever a Puritan, even in road or field, heard at a distance the sound of a psalm-tune, though the sacred words might be quite undistinguishable, he doffed his hat and bowed his head in the true presence of God. We fain must believe, as Arthur Hugh Clough says,--
"There is some great truth, partial, very likely, but needful, Lodged, I am strangely sure, in the tones of an English psalm-tune."
Judge Sewall often writes with tender and simple pathos of his being moved to tears by the singing,--sometimes by the music, sometimes by the words. "The song of the 5th Revelation was sung. I was ready to burst into tears at the words, bought with thy blood." He also, with a vehemence of language most unusual in him and which showed his deep feeling, wrote that he had an intense passion for music. And yet, the only tunes he or any of his fellow-colonists knew were the simple ones called Oxford, Litchfield, Low Dutch, York, Windsor, Cambridge, St. David's and Martyrs.
About the year 1714 Rev. John Tufts, of Newbury, who had previously prepared "A very Plain and Easy Introduction to the Art of Singing Psalm-tunes," issued a collection of tunes in three parts. These thirty-seven tunes, all of which but one were in common metre, were bound often with "The Bay Psalm-Book." They were reprinted from Playford's "Book of Psalms" and the notes of the staff were replaced with letters and dots, and the bars marking the measures were omitted. To the Puritans, this great number of new tunes appeared fairly monstrous, and formed the signal for bitter objections and fierce quarrels.
In 1647 a tract had appeared on church-singing which had attracted much attention. It was written by Rev John Cotton to attempt to influence the adoption and universal use of "The Bay Psalm-Book." This tract thoroughly considered the duty of singing, the matter sung, the singers, and the manner of singing, and, like all the literature of the time, was full of Biblical allusion and quotation. It had been said that "man should sing onely and not the women. Because it is not permitted to a woman to speake in the Church, how then shall they sing? Much lesse is it permitted to them to prophecy in the church and singing of Psalms is a kind of Prophecying." Cotton fully answered and contradicted these false reasoners, who would have had to face a revolution had they attempted to keep the Puritan women from singing in meeting. The tract abounds in quaint expressions, such as, "they have scoffed at Puritan Ministers as calling the people to sing one of Hopkins-Jiggs and so hop into the pulpit." Though he wrote this tract to encourage good singing in meeting, his endorsement of "lining the Psalm" gave support to the very element that soon ruined the singing. His reasons, however, were temporarily good, "because many wanted books and skill to read." At that time, and for a century later, many congregations had but one or two psalm-books, one of which was often bound with the church Bible and from which the deacon lined the psalm.
So villanous had church-singing at last become that the clergymen arose in a body and demanded better performances; while a desperate and disgusted party was also formed which was opposed to all singing. Still another band of old fogies was strong in force who wished to cling to the same way of singing that they were accustomed to; and they gave many objections to the new-fangled idea of singing by note, the chief item on the list being the everlasting objection of all such old fossils, that "the old way was good enough for our fathers," &c. They also asserted that "the names of the notes were blasphemous;" that it was "popish;" that it was a contrivance to get money; that it would bring musical instruments into the churches; and that "no one could learn the tunes any way." A writer in the "New England Chronicle" wrote in 1723, "Truly I have a great jealousy that if we begin to sing by rule, the next thing will be to pray by rule and preach by rule and then comes popery."
It is impossible to overestimate the excitement, the animosity, and the contention which arose in the New England colonies from these discussions over "singing by rule" or "singing by rote." Many prominent clergymen wrote essays and tracts upon the subject; of these essays "The Reasonableness of Regular Singing," also a "Joco-serious Dialogue on Singing," by Reverend Mr. Symmes; "Cases of Conscience," compiled by several ministers; "The Accomplished Singer," by Cotton Mather, were the most important. "Singing Lectures" also were given in many parts of New England by various prominent ministers. So high was party feud that a "Pacificatory Letter" was necessary, which was probably written by Cotton Mather, and which soothed the troubled waters. The people who thought the "old way was the best" were entirely satisfied when they were convinced that the oldest way of all was, of course, by note and not by rote.
This naive extract from the records of the First Church of Windsor, Connecticut, will show the way in which the question of "singing by rule" was often settled in the churches, and it also gives a very amusing glimpse of the colonial manner of conducting a meeting:--
"July 2. 1736. At a Society meeting at which Capt. Pelatiah Allyn Moderator. The business of the meeting proceeded in the following manner Viz. the Moderator proposed as to the consideration of the meeting in the 1st Place what should be done respecting that part of publick Woiship called Singing viz. whether in their Publick meetings as on Sabbath day, Lectures &c they would sing the way that Deacon Marshall usually sung in his lifetime commonly called the 'Old Way' or whether they would sing the way taught by Mr. Beal commonly called 'Singing by Rule,' and when the Society had discoursed the matter the Moderator pioposed to vote for said two ways as followeth viz. that those that were for singing in publick in the way practiced by Deacon Marshall should hold up their hands and be counted, and then that those that were desirous to sing in Mr. Beals way called 'by Rule' would after show their minds by the same sign which method was proceeded upon accordingly. But when the vote was passed there being many voters it was difficult to take the exact number of votes in order to determine on which side the major vote was; whereupon the Moderator ordered all the voters to go out of the seats and stand in the alleys and then those that were for Deacon Marshalls way should go into the mens seats and those that were for Mr. Beals way should go into the womens seat and after much objections made against that way, which prevailed not with the Moderator, it was complied with, and then the Moderator desired that those that were of the mind that the way to be practiced for singing for the future on the Sabbath &c should be the way sung by Deacon Marshall as aforesaid would signify the same by holding up their hands and be counted, and then the Moderator and myself went and counted the voters and the Moderator asked me how many there was. I answered 42 and he said there was 63 or 64 and then we both counted again and agreed the number being 43. Then the Moderator was about to count the number of votes for Mr. Beals way of Singing called 'by Rule' but it was offered whether it would not be better to order the voters to pass out of the Meeting House door and there be counted who did accordingly and their number was 44 or 45. Then the Moderator proceeded and desired that those who were for singing in Public the way that Mr. Beal taught would draw out of their seats and pass out of the door and be counted. They replied they were ready to show their minds in any proper way where they were if they might be directed thereto but would not go out of the door to do the same and desired that they might be led to a vote where they were and they were ready to show their minds which the Moderator refused to do and thereupon declared that it was voted that Deacon Marshalls way of singing called the 'Old Way' should be sung in Publick for the future and ordered me to record the same as the vote of the Said Society which I refused to do under the circumstances thereof and have recorded the facts and proceedings."
Good old lining, droning Deacon Marshall! though you were dead and gone, you and your years of psalm-singings were not forgotten. You lived, an idealized memory of pure and pious harmony, in the hearts of your old church friends. Warmly did they fight for your "way of singing;" with most undeniable and open partiality, with most dubious ingenuousness and rectitude, did your old neighbor, Captain Pelatiah Allyn, conduct that hot July music-meeting, counting up boldly sixty-three votes in favor of your way, when there were only forty-three voters on your side of the alley, and crowding a final decision in your favor. It is sad to read that when icy winter chilled the blood, warm partisanship of old friends also cooled, and innovative Windsor youth carried the day and the music vote, and your good old way was abandoned for half the Sunday services, to allow the upstart new fashion to take control.
One happy result arose throughout New England from the victory of the ardent advocates of the "singing by rule,"--the establishment of the New England "singing-school,"--that outlet for the pent-up, amusement-lacking lives of young people in colonial times. What that innocent and happy gathering was in the monotonous existence of our ancestors and ancestresses, we of the present pleasure-filled days can hardly comprehend.
Extracts from the records of various colonial churches will show how soon the respective communities yielded to the march of improvement and "seated the taught singers" together, thus forming choirs. In 1762 the church at Rowley, Massachusetts, voted "that those who have learned the art of Singing may have liberty to sit in the front gallery." In 1780 the same parish "requested Jonathan Chaplin and Lieutenant Spefford to assist the deacons in Raising the tune in the meeting house." In Sutton, in 1791, the Company of Singers were allowed to sit together, and $13 was voted to pay for "larning to sing by Rule." The Roxbury "First Church" voted in 1770 "three seats in the back gallery for those inclined to sit together for the purpose of singing" The church in Hanover, in 1742, took a vote to see whether the "church will sing in the new way" and appoint a tuner. In Woodbury, Connecticut, in 1750 the singers "may sitt up Galery all day if they please but to keep to there own seat & not to Infringe on the Women Pues." In 1763, in the Ipswich First Parish, the singers were allowed to sit "two back on each side of the front alley." Similar entries may be found in nearly every record of New England churches in the middle or latter part of that century.
The musical battle was not finished, however, when the singing was at last taught by rule, and the singers were allowed to sit together and form a choir. There still existed the odious custom of "lining" or "deaconing" the psalm. To this fashion may be attributed the depraved condition of church-singing of which Walters so forcibly wrote, and while it continued the case seemed hopeless, in spite of singing-schools and singing-teachers. It would be trying to the continued uniformity of pitch of an ordinary church choir, even now-a-days, to have to stop for several seconds between each line to listen to a reading and sometimes to an explanation of the following line.
The Westminster Assembly had suggested in 1664 the alternate reading and singing of each line of the psalm to those churches that were not well supplied with psalm-books. The suggestion had not been adopted without discussion, It was in 1680 much talked over in the church in Plymouth, and was adopted only after getting the opinion of each male church member. When once taken into general use the custom continued everywhere, through carelessness and obstinacy, long after the churches possessed plenty of psalm-books. An early complaint against it was made by Dr. Watts in the preface of his hymns, which were published by Benjamin Franklin in 1741. As Watts' Psalms and Hymns were not, however, in general use in New England until after the Revolution, this preface with its complaint was for a long time little seen and little heeded.
It is said that the abolition came gradually; that the impetuous and well-trained singers at first cut off the last word only of the deacon's "lining;" they then encroached a word or two further, and finally sung boldly on without stopping at all to be "deaconed." This brought down a tempest of indignation from the older church-members, who protested, however, in vain. A vote in the church usually found the singers victorious, and whether the church voted for or against the "lining," the choir would always by stratagem vanquish the deacon. One old soldier took his revenge, however. Being sung down by the rampant choir, he still showed battle, and rose at the conclusion of the psalm and opened his psalm-book, saying calmly, "Now let the people of the Lord sing."
The Rowley church tried diplomacy in their struggle against "deaconing," by instituting a gradual abolishing of the custom. In 1785 the choir was allowed "to sing once on the Lord's Day without reading by the Deacon." In five years the Rowley singers were wholly victorious, and "lining out" the psalm was entirely discontinued.
In 1770, dissatisfaction at the singing in the church was rife in Wilbraham, and a vote was taken to see whether the town would be willing to have singing four times at each service; and it was voted to "take into consideration the Broken State of this Town with regard to singing on the Sabbath Day." Special and bitter objection was made against the leader beating time so ostentatiously. A list of singers was made and a singing-master appointed. The deacon was allowed to lead and line and beat time in the forenoon, while the new school was to have control in the afternoon; and "whoever leads the singing shall be at liberty to use the motion of his hand while singing for the space of three months only." It is needless to state who came off victorious in the end. The deacon left as a parting shot a request to "make Inquiry into the conduct of those who call themselves the Singers in this town."
In Worcester, in 1779, a resolution adopted at the town meeting was "that the mode of singing in the congregation here be without reading the psalms line by line." "The Sabbath succeeding the adoption of this resolution, after the hymn had been read by the minister, the aged and venerable Deacon Chamberlain, unwilling to abandon the custom of his fathers and his own honorable prerogative, rose and read the first line according to his usual practice. The singers, previously prepared to carry the desired alteration into effect, proceeded in their singing without pausing at the conclusion of the line. The white-haired officer of the church with the full power of his voice read on through the second line, until the loud notes of the collected body of singers overpowered his attempt to resist the progress of improvement. The deacon, deeply mortified at the triumph of the musical reformation, then seized his hat and retired from the meeting-house in tears." His conduct was censured by the church, and he was for a time deprived of partaking in the communion, for "absenting himself from the public services of the Sabbath;" but in a few weeks the unhouselled deacon was forgiven, and never attempted to "line" again.
Though the opponents of "lining" were victorious in the larger villages and towns, in smaller parishes, where there were few hymn-books, the lining of the psalms continued for many years. Mr. Hood wrote, in 1846, the astonishing statement that "the habit of lining prevails to this day over three-fourths of the United States." This I can hardly believe, though I know that at present the practice obtains in out of the way towns with poor and ignorant congregations. The separation of the lines often gives a very strange meaning to the words of a psalm; and one wonders what the Puritan children thought when they heard this lino of contradictions that Hood points out:--
"The Lord will come and He will not,"
and after singing that line through heard the second line,--
"Keep silence, but speak out."
Many new psalm-books appeared about the time of the Revolutionary War, and many church petitions have been preserved asking permission to use the new and more melodious psalm and hymn books. Books of instruction also abounded,--books in which the notes were not printed on the staff, and books in which there were staffs but no notes, only letters or other characters (these were called "dunce notes"); books, too, in which the notes were printed so thickly that they could scarcely be distinguished one from the other.
"A dotted tribe with ebon heads
That climb the slender fence along,
As black as ink, as thick as weeds,
Ye little Africans of song."
One book--perhaps the worst, since it was the most pretentious--was "The Compleat Melody or Harmony of Sion," by William Tansur,--"Ingenious Tans'ur Skilled in Musicks Art." It was a most superficial, pedantic, and bewildering composition. The musical instruction was given in the form of a series of ill-spelled dialogues between a teacher and pupil, interspersed with occasional miserable rhymes. It was ill-expressed at best, and such musical terms as "Rations of Concords," "Trilloes," "Trifdiapasons," "Leaps," "Binding cadences," "Disallowances," "Canons," "Prime Flower of Florid," "Consecutions of Perfects," and "Figurates," make the book exceedingly difficult of comprehension to the average reader, though possibly not to a student of obsolete musical phraseology.
A side skirmish on the music field was at this time fought between the treble and the tenor parts. Ravenscroft's Psalms and Walter's book had given the melody, or plain-song, to the tenor. This had, of course, thrown additional difficulties in the way of good singing; but when once the trebles obtained the leading part, after the customary bitter opposition, the improved singing approved the victory.
Many objections, too, were made to the introduction of "triple-time" tunes. It gave great offence to the older Puritans, who wished to drawl out all the notes of uniform length; and some persons thought that marking and accenting the measure was a step toward the "Scarlet Woman." The time was called derisively, "a long leg and a short one."
These old bigots must have been paralyzed at the new style of psalm-singing which was invented and introduced by a Massachusetts tanner and singing-master named Billings, and which was suggested, doubtless, by the English anthems. It spread through the choirs of colonial villages and towns like wild-fire, and was called "fuguing." Mr. Billings' "Fuguing Psalm Singer" was published in 1770. It is a dingy, ill-printed book with a comically illustrated frontispiece, long pages of instruction, and this motto:--
"O, praise the Lord with one consent
And in this grand design
Let Britain and the Colonies
The succeeding hymn-books, and the patriotic hymns of Billings in post-Revolutionary years have no hint of "Britain" in them. The names "Federal Harmony," "Columbian Harmony," "Continental Harmony," "Columbian Repository," and "United States Sacred Harmony" show the new nation. Billings also published the "Psalm Singer's Amusement," and other singing-books. The shades of Cotton, of Sewall, of Mather must have groaned aloud at the suggestions, instructions, and actions of this unregenerate, daring, and "amusing" leader of church-singing.
It seems astonishing that New England communities in those times of anxious and depressing warfare should have so delightedly seized and adopted this unusual and comparatively joyous style of singing, but perhaps the new spirit of liberty demanded more animated and spirited expression; and Billings' psalm-tunes were played with drum and fife on the battlefield to inspire the American soldiers. Billings wrote of his fuguing invention, "It has more than twenty times the power of the old slow tunes. Now the solemn bass demands their attention, next the manly tenor, now the lofty counter, now the volatile treble. Now here! Now there! Now here again! Oh ecstatic, push on, ye sons of harmony!" Dr. Mather Byles wrote thus of fuguing:--
"Down starts the Bass with Grave Majestic Air,
And up the Treble mounts with shrill Career,
With softer Sounds in mild melodious Maze
Warbling between, the Tenor gently plays
And, if th' inspiring Altos joins the Force
See! like the Lark it Wings its towering Course
Thro' Harmony's sublimest Sphere it flies
And to Angelic Accents seems to rise."
A more modern poet in affectionate remembrance thus sings the fugue:--
"A fugue let loose cheers up the place,
With bass and tenor, alto, air,
The parts strike in with measured grace,
And something sweet is everywhere.
"As if some warbling brood should build
Of bits of tunes a singing nest;
Each bringing that with which it thrilled
And weaving it with all the rest."
All public worshippers in the meetings one hundred years ago did not, however, regard fuguing as "something sweet everywhere," nor did they agree with Billings and Byles as to its angelic and ecstatic properties. Some thought it "heartless, tasteless, trivial, and irreverent jargon." Others thought the tunes were written more for the absurd inflation of the singers than for the glory of God; and many fully sympathized with the man who hung two cats over Billings's door to indicate his opinion of Billings's caterwauling. An old inhabitant of Roxbury remembered that when fuguing tunes were introduced into his church "they produced a literally fuguing effect on the older people, who went out of the church as soon as the first verse was sung." One scandalized and belligerent old clergyman, upon the Sabbath following the introduction of fuguing into his church, preached upon the prophecy of Amos, "The songs of the temple shall be turned into howling," while another took for his text the sixth verse of the seventeenth chapter of Acts, "Those that have turned the world upside down, are come hither also." One indignant and disgusted church attendant thus profanely recorded in church his views:--
"Written out of temper on a Pannel in one of the Pues in Salem Church:--
"Could poor King David but for once
To Salem Church repair;
And hear his Psalms thus warbled out,
Good Lord, how he would swear
"But could St Paul but just pop in,
From higher scenes abstracted,
And hear his Gospel now explained,
By Heavens, he'd run distracted."
These lines were reprinted in the "American Apollo" in 1792.
The repetition of a word or syllable in fuguing often lead to some ridiculous variations in the meanings of the lines. Thus the words--
"With reverence let the saints appear
And bow before the Lord,"
were forced to be sung, "And bow-wow-wow, And bow-ow-ow," and so on until bass, treble, alto, counter, and tenor had bow-wowed for about twenty seconds; yet I doubt if the simple hearts that sung ever saw the absurdity.
It is impossible while speaking of fuguing to pass over an extraordinary element of the choir called "singing counter." The counter-tenor parts in European church-music were originally written for boys' voices. From thence followed the falsetto singing of the part by men; such was also the "counter" of New England. It was my fortune to hear once in a country church an aged deacon "sing counter". Reverence for the place and song, and respect for the singer alike failed to control the irrepressible start of amazement and smile of amusement with which we greeted the weird and apparently demented shriek which rose high over the voices of the choir, but which did not at all disconcert their accustomed ears. Words, however chosen, would fail in attempting to describe the grotesque and uncanny sound.
It is very evident, when once choirs of singers were established and attempts made for congregations to sing the same tune, and to keep together, and upon the same key, that in some way a decided pitch must be given to them to start upon. To this end pitch-pipes were brought into the singers' gallery, and the pitch was given sneakingly and shamefacedly to the singers. From these pitch-pipes the steps were gradual, but they led, as the Puritan divines foresaw, to the general introduction of musical instruments into the meetings.
This seemed to be attacking the very foundations of their church; for the Puritans in England had, in 1557, expressly declared "concerning singing of psalms we allow of the people joining with one voice in a plain tune, but not in tossing the psalms from one side to the other with mingling of organs." The Round-heads had, in 1664, gone through England destroying the noble organs in the churches and cathedrals. They tore the pipes from the organ in Westminster Abbey, shouting, "Hark! how the organs go!" and, "Mark what musick that is, that is lawful for a Puritan to dance," and they sold the metal for pots of ale. Only four or five organs were left uninjured in all England. 'Twas not likely, then, that New England Puritans would take kindly to any musical instruments. Cotton Mather declared that there was not a word in the New Testament that authorized the use of such aids to devotion. The ministers preached often and long on the text from the prophecy of Amos, "I will not hear the melody of thy viols;" while, Puritan-fashion, they ignored the other half of the verse, "Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs." Disparaging comparisons were made with Nebuchadnezzar's idolatrous concert of cornet, flute, dulcimer, sackbut, and psaltery; and the ministers, from their overwhelming store of Biblical knowledge, hurled text after text at the "fiddle-players."
Some of the first pitch-pipes were comical little apple-wood instruments that looked like mouse-traps, and great pains was taken to conceal them as they were passed surreptitiously from hand to hand in the choir. I have seen one which was carefully concealed in a box that had a leather binding like a book, and which was ostentatiously labelled in large gilt letters "Holy Bible;" a piece of barefaced and unnecessary deception on the part of some pious New England deacon or chorister.
Little wooden fifes were also used, and then metal tuning-forks. A canny Scotchman, who abhorred the thought of all musical instruments anywhere, managed to have one fling at the pitch-pipe. The pitch had been given but was much too high, and before the first verse was ended the choir had to cease singing. The Scotchman stood up and pointed his long finger to the leader, saying in broad accents of scorn, "Ah, Johnny Smuth, now ye can have a chance to blaw yer braw whustle agaen." At a similar catastrophe owing to the mistake of the leader in Medford, old General Brooks rose in his pew and roared in an irritated voice of command, "Halt! Take another pitch, Bailey, take another pitch."
In 1713 there was sent to America an English organ, "a pair of organs" it was called, which had chanced, by being at the manufacturers instead of in a church, to have escaped the general destruction by the Round-heads. It was given by Thomas Brattle to the Brattle Street Church in Boston. The congregation voted to refuse the gift, and it was then sent to King's Chapel, where it remained unpacked for several months for fear of hostile demonstrations, but was finally set up and used. In 1740 a Bostonian named Bromfield made an organ, and it was placed in a meeting-house and used weekly. In 1794 the church in Newbury obtained an organ, and many unpleasant and disparaging references were made by clergymen of other parishes to "our neighbor's box of whistles," "the tooting tub."
Violoncellos, or bass-viols, as they were universally called, were almost the first musical instruments that were allowed in the New England churches. They were called, without intentional irreverence, "Lord's fiddles." Violins were widely opposed, they savored too much of low, tavern dance-music. After much consultation a satisfactory compromise was agreed upon by which violins were allowed in many meetings, if the performers "would play the fiddle wrong end up." Thus did our sanctimonious grandfathers cajole and persuade themselves that an inverted fiddle was not a fiddle at all, but a small bass-viol. An old lady, eighty years old, wrote thus in the middle of this century, of the church of her youth: "After awhile there was a bass-viol Introduced and brought into meeting and did not suit the Old people; one Old Gentleman got up, took his hat off the peg and marched off. Said they had begun fiddling and there would be dancing soon." Another church-member, in derisive opposition to a clarinet which had been "voted into the choir," brought into meeting a fish-horn, which he blew loud and long to the complete rout of the clarinet-player and the singers. When reproved for this astounding behavior he answered stoutly that "if one man could blow a horn in the Lord's House on the Sabbath day he guessed he could too," and he had to be bound over to keep the peace before the following Sunday. A venerable and hitherto decorous old deacon of Roxbury not only left the church when the hated bass-viol began its accompanying notes, but he stood for a long time outside the church door stridently "caterwauling" at the top of his lungs. When expostulated with for this unseemly and unchristianlike annoyance he explained that he was "only mocking the banjo." To such depths of rebellion were stirred the Puritan instincts of these religious souls.
Many a minister said openly that he would like to walk out of his pulpit when the obnoxious and hated flutes, violins, bass-viols, and bassoons were played upon in the singing gallery. One clergyman contemptuously announced "We will now sing and fiddle the forty-fifth Psalm." Another complained of the indecorous dress of the fiddle-player. This had reference to the almost universal custom, in country churches in the summer time, of the bass-viol player removing his coat and playing "in his shirt sleeves." Others hated the noisy tuning of the bass-viol while the psalm was being read. Mr. Brown, of Westerly, sadly deplored that "now we have only catgut and resin religion."
In 1804 the church in Quincy, being "advanced," granted the singers the sum of twenty-five dollars to buy a bass-viol to use in meeting, and a few other churches followed their lead. From the year 1794 till 1829 the church in Wareham, Massachusetts, was deeply agitated over the question of "Bass-Viol, or No Bass-Viol." They voted that a bass-viol was "expedient," then they voted to expel the hated abomination; then was obtained "Leave for the Bass Viol to be brought into ye meeting house to be Played On every other Sabbath & to Play if chosen every Sabbath in the Intermission between meetings & not to Pitch the Tunes on the Sabbaths that it don't Play" Then, they tried to bribe the choir for fifty dollars not to use the "bars-vile," but being unsuccessful, many members in open rebellion stayed away from church and were disciplined therefor. Then they voted that the bass-viol could not be used unless Capt. Gibbs were previously notified (so he and his family need not come to hear the hated sounds); but at last, after thirty years, the choir and the "fiddle-player" were triumphant in Wareham as they were in other towns.
We were well into the present century before any cheerful and also simple music was heard in our churches; fuguing was more varied and surprising than cheerful. Of course, it was difficult as well as inappropriate to suggest pleasing tunes for such words as these:--
"Far in the deep where darkness dwells,
The land of horror and despair,
Justice hath built a dismal hell,
And laid her stores of vengeance there:
"Eternal plagues and heavy chains,
Tormenting racks and fiery coals,
And darts to inflict immortal pains,
Dyed in the blood of damned souls."
But many of the words of the old hymns were smooth, lively, and encouraging; and the young singers and perhaps the singing-masters craved new and less sober tunes. Old dance tunes were at first adapted; "Sweet Anne Page," "Babbling Echo," "Little Pickle" were set to sacred words. The music of "Few Happy Matches" was sung to the hymn "Lo, on a narrow neck of land;" and that of "When I was brisk and young" was disguised with the sacred words of "Let sinners take their course." The jolly old tune, "Begone dull care," which began,--
"My wife shall dance, and I will sing,
And merrily pass the day."
was strangely appropriated to the solemn words,--
"If this be death, I soon shall be
From every pain and sorrow free,"
and did not seem ill-fitted either.
"Sacred arrangements," "spiritual songs," "sacred airs," soon followed, and of course demanded singers of capacity and education to sing them. From this was but a step to a paid quartette, and the struggle over this last means of improvement and pleasure in church music is of too recent a date to be more than referred to.
I attended a church service not many years ago in Worcester, where an old clergyman, the venerable "Father" Allen, of Shrewsbury, then too aged and feeble to preach, was seated in the front pew of the church. When a quartette of singers began to render a rather operatic arrangement of a sacred song he rose, erect and stately, to his full gaunt height, turned slowly around and glanced reproachfully over the frivolous, backsliding congregation, wrapped around his spare, lean figure his full cloak of quilted black silk, took his shovel hat and his cane, and stalked indignantly and sadly the whole length of the broad central aisle, out of the church, thus making a last but futile protest against modern innovations in church music. Many, in whom the Puritan instincts and blood are still strong, sympathize internally with him in this feeling; and all novelty-lovers must acknowledge that the sublime simplicity and deep piety in which the old Puritan psalm-tunes abound, has seldom been attained in the modern church-songs. Even persons of neither musical knowledge, taste, nor love, feel the power of such a tune as Old Hundred; and more modern and more difficult melodies, though they charm with their harmony and novelty, can never equal it in impressiveness nor in true religious influence.
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