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"Indigenous" vs "European" Music in 19th Century America

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series

"19th Century American Church Music"

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I have suggested that the 19th century in America was a time in which three forms of culture began to emerge distinct from one another: cultivated, communal, and commercial culture. There exists some disagreement amongst scholars, however, over whether this  division between folk, popular, and cultivated music was really a distinction between American music and European music per se. For example, nineteenth century writers are often critical of the music of eighteenth century composer William Billings, arguing that his fuging-tunes were “unscientific” and lacked appropriate refinement, especially for religious devotion. Billings’s music became known for its open harmonies, angular melodic lines, upbeat rhythms, and “rough” performance style, which many consider a uniquely “American” sound.

Some scholars argue, then, that the reforms of the nineteenth century were nothing more than an attempt to replace indigenous American music with European forms. For example, Gilbert Chase argues that “European musical culture, with much of its apparatus and its standard repertoire, was transported to the United States and superimposed upon our social structure.”1 And Charles Hamm observes, “Much has been made of the fact that they [Hastings, Mason, and Bradbury] favored European music over American, that their efforts helped turn American musical taste back to European products.”2

Others, however, point out that while such fuging-tunes were made popular by composers like Billings and are certainly most associated with him, they were actually first introduced in England. John Mark Jordan, for example, explains that the fuging-tune was a “largely British innovation” that “reached its peak of popularity in England in the middle of the eighteenth century,” was “imported” by Billings and other American composers of the late eighteenth century, and soon “became one of the hallmarks of the new American style.”3 Moreover, Michael Broyles convincingly argues that at this time in history there really was no clear distinction between the culture of America and Great Britain—there was simply one Anglo-American music culture.4

Therefore, if there was a reaction against one form of music in favor of another, as there clearly appears to be, it was not a reaction against American music in favor of European, but rather a reaction against problems with the larger culture of Anglo-American music, found both in England and America, in favor of that of the European continent, especially Germany.

In other words, the debate centered on the quality of the music itself rather than “indigenous” culture vs. some other culture.

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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. Gilbert Chase, America’s Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1966), 325. []
  2. Charles Hamm, Music in the New World (New York: Norton, 1983), 170. []
  3. John Mark Jordan, “Sacred Praise: Thomas Hastings and the Reform of Sacred Music in the Nineteenth-Century” (Thesis—Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1999), 58. []
  4. Michael Broyles, “Lowell Mason on European Church Music and Transatlantic Cultural Identification: A Reconsideration,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 38, no. 2 (1985). []