by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 22, 2016.
In 1721, Reverend Cotton Mather of the Massachusetts Bay Colony preached (and later published) a sermon called, “The Accomplished Singer” encouraging the revival of ‘regular singing.’ Linda Ruggles, Lecturer of History at the University of Maryland, tells us that, “a number of ministers preached and wrote during the 1720s of the deplorable state of singing in the New England churches and strove to institute Regular Singing as the accepted style in worship.” But unsurprisingly, there was resistance from the congregation. Learning proper singing took effort and seemed like a frivolous endeavor. The pace of improvement was glacial. Still, Harvard was teaching its divinity students proper singing, and the practice and acceptance of singing schools slowly began to spread.
An early notice of a singing school in Exeter was placed in the Constitutionalist, a newspaper published in town in January of 1813. “William M. Butler would respectfully inform those from whom he has received encouragement and the young Ladies and Gentlemen in town and vicinity, that he should commence upon a second term on Tuesday Evening the 26th at the Centre School House. All those who subscribe to this school will be carried through the first principles of Musick, for the purpose of facilitating their future progress.” Mr. Butler’s singing school tuition was, “one dollar, to be paid at the end of the quarter; the Scholars furnishing the School with lights.”
Likewise, in 1818, Reverend Hosea Hildreth, an instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy, announced his singing school would open in February. “At the desire of several friends Mr. Hildreth will open a school on next Tuesday evening for instructing young Ladies and Gentlemen in Sacred Musick; provided twenty should previously apply for instruction.” Hildreth charged two dollars for his singing school.
Those who had presumably worked their way through a course in regular singing could join the Rockingham Sacred Musick Society, which met in Exeter or Portsmouth. Each year, at their annual meeting, the Society hosted an esteemed speaker – usually a local minister – to explain why choral singing, particularly good quality choral singing, was considered a form of prayer. North Hampton minister Jonathan French, in his 1816 address, made the case that music was always sacred, “we infer the fondness of the ancients for music from the wonderful effects they ascribe to it. It is said that by music diseases were cured, strong propensities controlled, seditions quelled, and passions raised and calmed.” But he was concerned that modern secular music was too profane for Sunday. “Does not performance of some, necessarily resemble the jargon of Babel, and the confused noise of the discordant assembly at Ephesus, some crying one thing, and some another?” Stick to sacred music, he encouraged, and not “modern fugueing tunes.”
Fuguing tunes were hardly gangsta rap. They were still hymns, but were set to four-part harmony. Both the Exeter singing masters taught this type of singing as evidenced by their use of the songbook, “Village Harmony.” This classic New England songbook was published in Exeter and went through multiple editions. Butler instructed his students, “It is earnestly recommended, that the scholars be furnished with the Eleventh Edition of the Village Harmony, a book containing a correct and pleasing variety of Psalmody.” Who wouldn’t want to learn from a book that advised: “Never sing through the nose, for that will spoil the voice, make the musick disagreeable, and have a disgusting effect upon the hearer.”
Whether singing schools improved the music in church was debatable. Elizabeth Dow Leonard remembered the music of her youth unkindly. “The volunteer choir troubles were often very amusing and always perpetual. The tune used to be started or ‘pitched,’ as it was termed, with a pitch-pipe, the leader and such of the choir as were supposed to be masters of music ‘beating time’ with the hand instead of a baton.” “The singers performed their parts with spirit and understanding also, making up what was deficient in science and harmony with unction and noise.” By mid-century, the co-educational nature of singing schools facilitated a shift from worship to courtship, and for this they were still a valuable occupation.
Image: New England singing schools used The Village Harmony as the songbook. This edition was published in Exeter by J.J. Williams in 1819, and was sold throughout the region.