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Cultivated, Commercial, and Communal Music

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series

"19th Century American Church Music"

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Church music in nineteenth century America can be summarized very simply with one word: reform. In many ways, the influential writers and composers of the nineteenth century were bent upon rejecting the new music of eighteenth century American composers and returning to more established classical traditions. In order to understand their motivation, however, one must consider both the changes that were occurring in American culture at the time and that culture’s relationship to European culture.

Part of the change that occurred musically in the early nineteenth century in America was a new distinction between “classical” art and “popular” art. Whereas in Europe, and even in early America, what was popular musically came out of the cultivated tradition of art music, the individualism, freedom, and commercialism inherent in American democracy created an environment at the turn of the century in which what was popular was that which was simple, immediate, “rugged,” and personal. Several musicologists have sought to describe and categorize the emerging streams of American musical culture. One of the first was H. Wiley Hitchcock, who chose the terms “cultivated” and “vernacular” to express this growing division in early nineteenth century American music:

As America entered the nineteenth century, a distinction between cultivated and vernacular traditions was hardly visible. The music of the ballad operas at New York and Philadelphia was also the music of broadsides and songsters, as it was of the popular products of sheet-music publishers. The fuging tunes of the New England Yankees aimed to improve church singing and thus to be spiritually edifying, but they served also as a popular social music for secular entertainment. . . . However, as the nineteenth century unfolded we can distinguish with increasing clarity two bodies of American music, two attitudes toward music cultivated and vernacular become visible; an eventually profound schism in American musical culture begins to open up. On the one hand there continued a vernacular tradition of utilitarian and entertainment music, essentially unconcerned with artistic or philosophical ideals; a music based on established or newly diffused American raw materials; a “popular” music in the largest sense—broadly based, widespread, naive, and unselfconscious—and a whole music whose “success” was measured not by abstract aesthetic standards but by those of the marketplace. On the other hand there developed a cultivated tradition of fine-art music significantly concerned with moral, artistic, or cultural ideals; a music almost exclusively based on continental European models, looked to rather self-consciously; an essentially transatlantic music of the pretenders to gentility; a music by no means widespread throughout all segments of the populace but one that its advocates hoped was sophisticated; and a music that in general could not and did not pay for itself but required, for its very existence, some degree of patronage—for its composers if not its performers.1

While Hitchcock certainly captures the growing cultural distinctions, his categories seem problematic. He distinguishes “vernacular” from a third category of “folk;”2  however, one wonders how different they are in his descriptions. In itself, the term “vernacular” connotes music that has arisen out of the natural language of the people itself, similar to what one understands as “folk.” Yet Hitchcock is clear that while he sees “vernacular” music as that which has “simply grown into as one grows into one’s vernacular tongue” like folk music, it is also characterized by its “entertainment value” rather than communal values, and its worth is dependent upon “standards . . . of the marketplace” rather that intrinsic aesthetic qualities.3  There appears to be a lack of clarity with these terms, at least as how they are defined today.

Another example of the confusion with terms is evident, for instance, with Kathryn L. Bumpass. She, too, uses the terms “cultivated” and “vernacular,” and yet seems to include under the heading of “cultivated” music that Hitchcock would have called “vernacular”:

. . . but reform must be seen against the background of the variety of music in nineteenth-century America, where the genteel or cultivated tradition existed alongside a native, vernacular tradition. The genteel tradition flourished especially in urban areas; it encompassed vocal and instrumental art music, sentimental song, parlour music for solo piano or other instruments, ballroom dance music, patriotic songs and marches.4

Surely Hitchcock would categorize “sentimental song, parlour music for solo piano or other instruments, ballroom dance music, patriotic songs and marches” as “vernacular” rather than “cultivated.” Bumpass describes “vernacular” music as the fuging-tunes of Billings and those like him.5 She similarly describes “folk hymnody” as the populist songs coming out of the revival tradition,6 yet Hitchcock categorizes such songs as “vernacular.”7

Charles Hamm’s divisions seem to be a bit more helpful. He, too, describes three categories of music that emerged in America during this time period: “classical,” “industrial,” and “invisible” music.

In the decades leading up to World War I, then, American musical culture moved along several quite different tracks. There was classical music, still firmly rooted in European tradition in its repertory, in the musical style of pieces written by American composers and, most of all, in the role it played in articulating and defining class structures. There was what might be called industrial music: massproduced, stereotyped in content and musical structure, designed for the rapidly growing part of the population able to purchase and consume commodities produced by American capitalism. And there was the invisible music of those peoples still not sharing equally in the economic, social, political and educational benefits of American democracy.8

Perhaps more helpful terms to describe the new distinctions being made in American music would be “cultivated,” “commercial,” and “communal.” Cultivated music is the high art music built on classical models, commercial music is the popular music of the marketplace, and communal music is the simple vernacular music of the people. Yet regardless of what terms one uses, such cultural divides are clearly evident during this time. The eighteenth century became known for music characteristic of rugged, rural, American indigenous tradition, yet the nineteenth century was in many respects a reaction against this in favor of what some would consider a more refined “European” tradition. Added to this distinction was the growing industry of music entrepreneurs who published what they thought would sell, not necessarily what was either representative of American indigenous culture or European art music. Thus a growing distinction between folk, popular, and high art music became more and more apparent. This is true, not only of secular music in general, but also of music written for the church.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. 8H. Wiley Hitchcock, Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974), 56-57. []
  2. Ibid., 55. []
  3. Ibid., 55, 56. []
  4. 11Kathryn L. Bumpass, “The USA: A Quest for Improvement,” in The Early Romantic Era (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991). []
  5. Ibid., 264. []
  6. Ibid., 265. []
  7. 14Hitchcock, Music in the United States, 106ff. []
  8. Charles Hamm, “The USA: Classical, Industrial and Invisible Music,” in The Late Romantic Era: From the Mid-19th Century to World War I, ed. Jim Samson (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991), 323. []