Music the coldest heart can warm,
The hardest melt, the fiercest charm;
Disarm the savage of his rage,
Dispel our cares, and pains assuage:
With joy it can our souls inspire,
And tune our tempers to the lyre;
Our passions like the notes agree,
And stand subdu’d by harmony.
~ from Select Psalms and Hymns for the use of Mr. Adgate’s Pupils
These verses serve as part of an introduction to a hymnal produced in Philadelphia in 1787. The rhetoric regarding music’s affective power is familiar – music soothing the savage beast – but its use here further highlights the many roles that sacred music filled in early America. In addition to rousing religious devotion, music was supposed to uplift the spirit, please the mind, and bring diverse forces into harmony. It was both art and science, duty and offering, individual and communal, education and entertainment, transcendent and easy.
Music was also a commodity. Music instruction books had been published in the colonies from early in the eighteenth century, although the tunebook proper is usually traced to James Lyon’s Urania of 1760. Tunebooks were increasingly published locally or regionally, sometimes for use by a particular group or traveling singing master. They were oblong in format, neatly holding one or two psalm tunes per page. Most followed a pattern of prefatory material, introductory explanations of musical knowledge (often called “rudiments”), and repertoire, which may be further divided according to difficulty. Credit for the first sacred music book set in type in America goes to the press of Christoph Saur, and by century’s end the majority of sacred music publications were printed from type while the more expensive engraving process was generally reserved for secular sheet music.
Friends of AAS may not be surprised to know that Isaiah Thomas recognized the potential of sacred music, even though he described himself as “unskilled in musick.” He was editor and publisher of the influential The Worcester Collection, which went to eight editions from 1786 to 1803. Thomas writes of his own motivation for entering the sacred music scene in the Collection’s preface:
Having observed with pleasure the attention paid to Church Musick, by most classes of people in the New-England States, and knowing many of the books now in use, necessarily high-charged, owing to their being printed from Copper-plates, he was induced both by inclination, and at the request of several friends to attempt a work of this kind from types; hoping to afford it somewhat cheaper than any other book of its bigness printed after the usual manner.
Thomas proved accurate in his claims; Karl Kroeger, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on The Worcester Collection, cites it as the first mass market tunebook publication due to its reduced cost and repertoire selected to appeal to a broad audience. The process of printing also aided in this pursuit, since the repertoire could change with every edition to keep up with new developments and user feedback. Perhaps we should suggest music as business venture as a suitable verse to add to the lofty sentiments above.
Ursula Crosslin is a Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology at Ohio State University. She was awarded a 2009-10 Reese Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society to research her project: “The Institution of the American Church Choir in Philadelphia, 1760-1860.”
Further reading: Karl Douglas Kroeger, “The Worcester Collection of Sacred Harmony and Sacred Music in America, 1786-1803” (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1977).