The Pioneers of American Music

By Louis C. Elson

The roots of American music lie in psalm-singing. Unpromising as this school may seem to be, it did far more for the development of music in this country than the secular concerts which took place in Virginia or South Carolina, or, a little later on, in New York. For, while these secular concerts were desultory and semi-occasional, the psalm-singing of New England was constant and unremitting. The Moravian music, in Pennsylvania, was undoubtedly the best early music in America, but this did not extend its influence to other parts of the country as the psalm-singing of New England gradually did, not did it come into existence as early as the latter.

There is one point about this early psalm-singing that is not as thoroughly understood as it should be. It is that the old custom of having the melody in the tenor, instead of in the treble, was adhered to, which made the psalms somewhat more difficult to sing and to understand than would have been the case if the melody had been in the upper voice. The Old Hundred is an example of this.

How much of activity there was in this field can scarcely be understood by the modern reader. It was the chief, perhaps the only outlet for enjoyment, of the New Englander, and what with the innocent flirtations, the seeing the girls home after singing school, and the charm of the music itself, we can imagine the old singing school to have been as much of a social function as the opera is to the music lover of today.

The earliest pioneers of American music were, therefore, to be found among the psalm-tune composers and singing school teachers of this epoch. Of one of the earliest of these was William Billings. But there were many others. There was Oliver Holden, who composed Coronation, which is sung as much today as when it was first written a century and a half ago. There was Andrew Law, a much better musician than either Holden or Billings, who hymn, Archdale, is one of the few good compositions of the early type of work. There was Jacob Kimball, Jr., who deserted Law (not the aforesaid Andrew) to take up music and finally die in the poor-house. There was Samuel Holyoke, the composer of Arnheim.

We speak first of these men, since they were Americans, and pioneers in a very sterile field, but there were many foreigners who could be mentioned in this connection. Philadelphia had two cultivated Englishmen in Raynor Taylor and Benjamin Carr; New Your had another Englishman, William Tuckey, and Boston still another, Dr. G. K. Jackson.

First American Composers

Who was the earliest American composer? In one sense it was William Billings, since he was the first to entirely devote himself to music, and to starve by it. But there were two other Americans who preceded Billings. Francis Hopkinson and James Lyon, of whom the great American musical historian Mr. Oscar G. Sonneck, has written so entertainingly, were certainly the first chronologically, although their influence was by no means widespread. James Lyon, born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1735, was poet, preacher, and composer. He founded a singing school in Philadelphia, he published a collection of tunes entitled Urania, in which one may trace some of his harmonization and some original compositions, but none of his works became as popular as those cited by his immediate successors.

Francis Hopkinson, born in Philadelphia in 1737, was the first composer of American birth. To him belongs the honor of evolving the first musical composition which may be called distinctively American. He did not claim to be a professional composer, in the sense that Billings was. His dedication of a set of songs to General Washington may show his claim of priority of composition and disclaimer of professional musicianship very clearly. He said:

“I am neither a professed poet, nor a professed musician, and yet venture to appear in those characters united; for which, I confess, the censure of Temerity may justly be brought against me.

However small the reputation may be that I shall derive from this work, I cannot, I believe, be refused the credit of being the first native of the United States who has produced a musical composition.”

These two sentences from a lengthy dedication may show both the limitations and the worth of Hopkinson’s work. He was fortune in being first in a very narrow field, and, while almost all his immediate successors were in the sacred school, Hopkinson’s works were secular.

Many of the pioneers of American music were of foreign birth, as already intimated, yet some of them lived so long in American, and became so thoroughly identified with American music that they may almost be regarded as natives of this country. Perhaps the most important of these semi-Americans was Gottlieb Graupner, who founded the first permanent American orchestra.

The First American Orchestra

Gottlieb Graupner was a Hanoverian by birth, and was for a time the oboeist in a regiment in that little German kingdom. He seems to have been a rolling stone, and migrated to London, where he was a member of the large orchestra which Manager Salomon gathered together to play the new symphonies of Haydn, in 1791 and 1794. Soon after this he crossed the ocean and tried to settle in Prince Edwards’s Island, but found the musical field so unpromising there that he soon set out for Charleston, S. C., where there was considerable musical activity in the early days. Here he married a vocalist.

Together with his young wife he made a new start in Boston, where there were then about six professional musicians. The rest of his life was passed in Boston, where he conformed to the necessity then laid upon all musicians, and used every one of his various talents. He played contrabass, piano, clarinet and oboe, and he taught all these instruments. He was also a music printer, and he opened a music store where he sold the music that he himself printed and sometimes even composed.

He gathered together a number of musical amateurs (with perhaps four professionals), who formed the Philo-Harmonic Orchestra. Every Saturday night this little orchestra of about a dozen members would meet in a hall on Bedford Street (it was then Pond Street), and play at the symphonies of Gyrowetz, or Wraniszky, or even aspire as high as the works of Haydn.

Graupner was a member of the Handel and Haydn Society, when it began its career, and in the great opening concert of that society, on Christmas Eve, 1815, his Philo-Harmonic Orchestra, of less than twelve musicians, played the orchestral parts of some choruses by Haydn and Handel, against nearly a hundred singers, ten of whom were females. A Boston newspaper said of the concert that “there never was anything like it in the world!” – which may probably have been true, although not in the sense intended.

Another musical pioneer whose influence was very far-reaching was also a member of the Handel and Haydn Society in its early days. This was Jonas Chickering, the first great American piano manufacturer. We cannot claim for him the honor of having made the first American pianoforte; that must be awarded to John Behrent, of Philadelphia, who, in 1774, in his workshop on Third Street below Brown, brought forth “an extraordinary instrument by the name of the Pianoforte, made of mahogany, being of the nature of a harpsichord, with hammers and several changes,” as his advertisement runs.

But the first important advances in piano manufacture took place in Boston, and most of these were due to Jonas Chickering. He was born at New Ipswich, N. H., in April 1798. He came to Boston with very little cash in his pockets, but endowed with some musical ability and considerable mechanical genius. He sang in the Park Street Church choir, that very orthodox tabernacle where they refused to have an organ, and which the heterodox nicknamed “Brimstone Corner.” He became conductor and president of the Handel and Haydn Society. In 1823 we find the young man in business on his own account, and making the best upright pianos in the country.

He soon took a sea captain into partnership, and the first became Chickering & Mackay. Captain Mackay often sailed from Boston to South or Central America, with a boatload of Chickering pianos, which he would sell for cash or trade for precious woods, and would sail back to Boston with his ship filled with mahogany or rosewood, or other valuable timber, thus making a profit at each end of the voyage. In 1841 Captain Mackay determined that he would retire from the sea after one last voyage. He sailed on the voyage, and was never heard from again.

In 1837, Chickering, now alone in his firm, patented the casting of an iron frame, to sustain much greater tension on the piano than had yet been used. This and other inventions immediately following, made the American piano the most durable of the world, and enabled it to stand in climates where other pianos went to pieces.

In the days of great prosperity which followed, Jonas Chickering never allowed himself to grow inflated. He was often at the workmans bench, was careless of elegant attire, and was ever a specimen of an unspoiled American. It is impossible to discuss within the limits of this article many famous makers who followed Chickering as we are here confined to pioneers.

It is likewise not our purpose to speak in these articles of each and every one who took part in the early musical uplift. That would swell this little essay to the dimensions of a history. Such men as Uriah C. Hill, who founded the Philharmonic Orchestra in New York; Hupfeldt, Carr and Raynor Taylor, who were active in the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, deserve grateful remembrance by all Americans. We desire rather to speak of those men who created an epoch, who were missionaries as well as pioneers. And such a man surely was Lowell Mason.

A Remarkable Pioneer

Dr. Lowell Mason (he received his degree from the University of New York) was born in Medfield, Mass., January 8, 1792. In his youth he was a bank clerk in Savannah, Ga., where he employed his leisure hours in music. His studies led him gradually into composition, and he made a compilation of sacred songs and hymns, in which many of his own works appeared. But publisher after publisher in Philadelphia and Boston return manuscript, declining the risk of publication. It was finally undertaken by the Handel and Haydn Society, and was the best native collection that had been published to that time. Mason went back to Savannah with five hundred dollars in his pocket, as the first fruits of his musical labors, but requested that his name be omitted from the book, lest it hurt him in his banking business. But when, in the course of five years, the royalties had swelled to over four thousand dollars, he decided that there was more for him in music than in banking, and came to Boston to enter upon a new career.

Nevertheless, we find him teller in the American Bank, in the early Boston days, although the counting of bills was interspersed with the counting of measures, even then, for he was a busy musical director. In 1833 Wm. C. Woodbridge, an enthusiastic musical American, came back to Boston from Europe, bringing the principles of the Pestalozzi system with him , a sensible system of musical training much in advance of the bungling methods then used in New England.

The union of Woodbridge and Mason was as lively as the union of the white and blue papers of a seidlitz powder; there was splendid effervescence, and the pair of enthusiasts determined that the public must gain by the new system.

The Academy of Music was begun in Botston and missionaries were trained to carry the new musical tidings over the land. It too full three years of active endeavor to overcome the prejudice of the Boston city fathers to the admission of a course of musical study in the public schools. But at last, in September, 1836, permission was granted to Lowell Mason to teach the school children the rudiments of music – at his own expense.

This did not in the least dampen the ardor of two such men as Woodbridge and Mason. Pianos, books and tuition were furnished to the city of Boston, entirely at the expense of this altruistic pair. By 1838, however, the experiment had succeeded; the city council was convinced; they made an appropriation, and music in the public schools was established for the first time on this continent as a regular branch of study. Indeed it was probably the first time in the entire world, for the slight musical instruction afforded in the schools of Germany, by underpaid teachers with whom music was generally only an avocation, could not compare with the regular course that was established in America.

Lowell Mason established Treacher’s Conventions in America, and the fruits of his work were carefully garnered up by advanced students and disseminated in every part of our country. He died in 1872.

The First American Composer in Larger Forms

An American enthusiast in music is an overwhelming force, as the career of Lowell Mason well proves. There was another native enthusiast in a very different field, who also deserves recognition among our early pioneers. This was the first American composer in large forms of music – William H. Fry. He was born in Philadelphia, August 10, 1813, and was the son of a prominent editor and publisher of that time. He received an excellent literary training, but soon turned to music with avidity. He won a gold medal by an overture which was performed by the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society in 1833. He had composed an orchestral overture when he was but fourteen years old.

But Fry’s chief claim to a place among the notables of American musical history is in his opera Leonora, the first actual opera composed by an American. It was composed in 1845, to an English libretto, and was sung by the Seguin Troupe which gave light operas in the vernacular. But in 1858 it was translated into Italian and was performed by a great Italian troupe under the direction of Carl Anschuetz. The work is not great, reckoned by the standards of the present; it has many light tunes in the Balfe and Donizetti vein, but it has good harmonies, and a very effective drinking chorus, and it was the first in the field.

In those days there were no then thousand dollar prizes awaiting the American composer. The symphonies, cantatas, overtures and other musical compositions of Fry brought him nothing but expense and sometimes even adverse criticisms from his less gifted journalistic brethren. For Fry was an important journalist, musical editor and editorial writer of the New York Tribune. What he earned in his profession he spent in his avocation. He was devoutly attached to the Donizetti, Bellini and early Verdi style of opera, and at one time, in an endeavor to convert New York to this school, he have a set of lectures, with full illustrations, paying for the prominent Italian soloists, the chorus and the full orchestra out of his own pocket. Surely there is nothing so intense as an American enthusiast.

His music has not made a lasting impression. He was not naturally dramatic, although broadly cultured and highly educated. But he opened the path for others, and his musical criticisms were the first American ones that were at all worthy of the name. He certainly belongs in our gallery of American musical pioneers.