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Reforming Influences in 19th Century American Church Music

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series

"19th Century American Church Music"

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There were many composers, writers, and organizations during the nineteenth century that objected to the current condition of American church music and encouraged reform. Yet none had as lasting influence as the Boston Handel and Haydn Society, Thomas Hastings, and Lowell Mason.

Boston Handel and Haydn Society

The Handel and Haydn Society was formed in 1815 in Boston as a prime example of this kind of reaction against what had happened with eighteenth century church music. Founded by Gottlieb Graupner, Thomas Smith Webb, Amasa Winchester, and Matthew S. Parker with the expressed purpose of “improving the style of Church Music,”1 The Boston Handel and Haydn Society desired to improve musical taste through two goals: First, the society attempted to bring Boston audiences the best live musical performances, both of older (represented by Handel) and newer (represented by Haydn) masters. Second, the society published collections of church music, both for congregational singing and church choirs, that exemplified what they considered “the most approved and useful compositions.”2 Thus the Society encouraged the performance of large choral works such as Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Creation, and it published collections of hymns and anthems for church use, including Lowell Mason’s The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music.

The efforts of the Society reaped satisfying results. The musical culture of Boston and beyond showed clear signs of improvement, which even audience sentiments and expectations evidence. Consider, for example, the following report by an audience member of a Handel and Haydn Society concert:

We attend [the Handel and Haydn Society’s] performances, not only to be pleased, but to be improved. While the critic in music admires the display of skill, and the mere lover of fine sounds enjoys an exquisite repast, the deaf spirit may be awed with admiration, melted into tenderness, and kindled to praise.3

Thomas Hastings

Perhaps the most influential author to express a reaction against the current condition of music in America—especially church music—was Thomas Hastings (1784-1872). Hastings was a composer, hymn-tune book compiler, hymn writer, and music critic. While he composed almost one thousand sacred compositions and many hymns tunes—some of which are still sung today—his influence extends mostly from his philosophical writings.

In 1822 he published what was the first full-length musical treatise by an American, Dissertation on Musical Taste, a work referenced in the preface to the Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music.4 In the work he devastatingly criticizes the status quo in American church music:

If when a psalm or hymn has been read to us in an impressive manner, we can sing it in such a style as to preserve and increase the interest already excited, we shall not raise our voices in vain. But if the style of the music is at best insipid; if the performance of a well-selected piece is so deficient as neither to give character to the words sung, nor to make melody or harmony that can be patiently endured; or if, on the other hand, the music is so loaded with extraneous attractions as necessary to draw toward itself that degree of attention which should be devoted to the themes of the song; we need no language of prophecy we are offering a vain oblation. The exercise of singing becomes in either of these cases, a hindrance to devotion. It entirely fails as an instrument of Christian edification.5

Hastings clearly favors European classical models—specifically German models, but as is clear in the following quote, it is a preference not against an indigenous American music, but against a single Anglo-American music culture:

We are the decided admirers of German musick [sic]. We delight to study and to listen to it. The science, genius, the taste, that every where pervade it, are truly captivating to those who have learned to appreciate it: but such, we presume, are not yet the majority of American or English auditors or executants.6

In 1823 Hastings began editing the Western Recorder, by which he established a reputation as an advocate for higher standards in church music, and in 1835 he founded and edited a monthly periodical, Musical Magazine. In each of these endeavors, Hastings continued his critique of the current church music condition and offered solutions for improvement:

But while we admit the sacredness of this institution, we too often undervalue it in practice. We are prone, on the one hand, to treat it with comparative neglect; or on the other hand, to cherish it chiefly for the purposes of refined gratification or professional display. But music for this purpose should be adapted to the great ends of religion. It should be such as can be understood and felt. It should be plain but not insipid, simple yet chaste and beautiful; always made to subserve the great ends of religious edification.7

Hastings was concerned most of all that church music serve the function of nurturing religious “devotion.” The music should not attract attention to itself or away from the religious themes, as he suggested the rugged fuging-tunes did, but it should rather “be such as often to remain unnoticed, while it holds us in the attitude of devout contemplation.”8 Jordan explains Hastings’s dissatisfaction with the popular fuging-tunes:

In the eyes of these reformers, the fuging-tune had two major problems: the polyphony, although brief and simple, tended to obscure the words, and the robust, dance-like quality of the music was considered inappropriate for worship. For these reasons, the reformers of the early nineteenth century sought to drive the fugingtune, and indeed most American music, from the repertory of the churches, and by the end of the first decade they had succeeded fairly well in their mission.9

Lowell Mason

If Hastings was the most influential author in the improvement of American church music during the nineteenth century, Lowell Mason (1792-1872) was the most influential composer, publisher of church music collections, and educator. Mason’s influence began as a singing-school teacher in Savannah, Georgia from 1813-1824. It was there that Mason studied composition with Frederick L. Abel, a German musician who greatly influenced Mason’s musical taste and impacted him to begin writing hymn tunes and anthems. Mason’s concern for the condition of American church music also led him during this time to compile a collection of hymn tunes based on melodies from great European composers such as Haydn and Mozart. The Boston Handel and Haydn Society eventually published this collection in 1822.

The publication of this collection along with Mason’s growing reputation as a reformer of church music inevitably led to several churches in Boston hiring him to be in charge of their music. Mason had delivered an address at Hyman Beecher’s Hanover Street Church in Boston in 1826, in which he criticized contemporary church music and offered suggestions for reform. This address gave Mason the reputation among Boston pastors that led to their offer to hire him. He accepted the position in 1827, where he also assumed the role of president of the Society, a title he held until 1832. During this time, Mason’s interest in educating children developed, leading him to publish The Juvenile Psalmist (1829) and The Juvenile Lyre (1831), both collections for children.

In 1832 Mason resigned from the Handel and Haydn Society so that he could focus more specifically on music education. He was instrumental in establishing teacher training, seminars, singing-schools, and eventually an entire music education program in the Boston school system. He continued his emphasis on reforming church music as well, collaborating with Thomas Hastings to produce Spiritual Songs for Corporate Worship in direct opposition to Joshua Leavitt’s more popularly-styled, revivalistic Christian Lyre (1830). Mason not only collected hymn tunes and anthems based on classical models and encouraged the writing of new tunes and anthems in that tradition, but he also “corrected” tunes from eighteenth century American composers. For example, in his 1848 National Psalmist, Mason included William Billings’s tune MAJESTY, but with several harmonic and melodic alterations. Billing’s explained his method:

This is one of the American Tunes so very popular about the beginning of the present century. We have made but one slight change in the melody in passion from the fifth to the sixth measure, the harmony necessarily differs from the original, but while it is made to conform to the universally acknowledged laws of musical science, it is thought to be also in good keeping with the general character of the tune.

Here is clear evidence of the fact that Mason was not against American tunes or Billings in particular, but simply desired that the tunes be improved harmonically and melodically according to traditional rules of composition.

Like Hastings, Mason decried the current state of church music in favor of a more cultivated tradition. And also like Hastings, Mason’s reaction was not against indigenous American music, but against a broader cultural combination of the English speaking world. As Broyles summarizes,

Mason viewed American music as part of a single Anglo-American culture. In his eyes, the essential cultural distinction was between English-speaking and other Continental cultures, not between Europe and America.10

Mason was dissatisfied with the current condition of church music in America and Britain, and his solutions were the same as those being proposed in Britain. In the address given in Boston in 1826, Mason described what he saw as the problems and proposed solutions. John Ogasapian summarizes the content of the address:

Mason’s main thesis regarding church music was that worship and not musicianship was the primary concern, or as Mason himself put it, “Singing [in worship] shall be considered as much of a devotional exercise as prayer.” To that end, he delineated a few precepts: church music should be simple, “correct,” unostentatious, and singable; the text set carefully so that it is carried well by the music and the two complement each other; and singing should be by the congregation, supported by a capable choir of devout singers and a judicious choice of instruments. An organ was preferred, cello was acceptable in the absence of an organ, but the violin was to be avoided because of its secular connotations as a popular dance instrument. Both choir and organ were to be for support only and not for display or solo; and finally, congregational singing would be improved most in the long run if children were taught music from an early age.11

He attempted to encourage the composing of music built on standard classical rules of composition:

For several years I have been constantly importing from Europe the best publications of Sacred music and have at the same time been attending to the principles of Thoro’bass and Composition under the direction of an eminent German master—from all the mass thus collected I have been constantly selecting . . . [These were now] harmonized according to the modern principles of thorough bass—and I trust every false relation, and every forbidden progression will be avoided.12


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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. 20Lowell Mason, The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music: Being a Selection of the Most Approved Psalm and Hymn Tunes: Together with Many Beautiful Extracts from the Works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Other Eminent Composers: Harmonized for Three and Four Voices, with a Figured Base [Sic] for the Organ and Piano Forte (Boston: Richardson and Lord, 1829), iii. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Cited in Harold Earle Johnson, Hallelujah, Amen! The Story of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston (Boston: B. Humphries, 1965), 32. []
  4. 23Mason, Handel and Haydn Collection, xv. []
  5. 24Thomas Hastings, Dissertation on Musical Taste (New York: Mason Brothers, 1853), 28. []
  6. 25Ibid., 194. Emphasis original. []
  7. Ibid., 23. []
  8. Ibid., 85. []
  9. Jordan, “Sacred Praise,” 59-60. []
  10. Broyles, “Lowell Mason”: 333. []
  11. John Ogasapian, Church Music in America, 1620-2000 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007), 125-126. []
  12. Cited in Carol A. Pemberton, Lowell Mason: His Life and Work (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1985). []