Lowell Mason as a Church Musician

Bethany. 1856. SHTB, p.244.

Composed for the hymn, "Nearer, my God, to Thee," by Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848), Bethany was first published in SHTB, 1859.  The hymn, appearing in Hymns and Anthems, by C. Fox, London, 1841, was first introduced into America in the Rev. James Freeman Clarke's Service Book, 1844, revised in 1852 under the title Disciples' Hymn-Book (see Alfred P. Putnam, Singers and Songs of the Liberal Faith.  Roberts Brothers. Boston.  1875).

Referring to the composing of Bethany, Lowell Mason recounted to a friend, the following: "When we were compiling the collection known as the The Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book, they (that is, his associates in the work, Edwards A. Park and Austin Phelps) applied to me for a musical setting for the hymn "Nearer, my God, to Thee."  The metre was irregular.  But one night some time after, lying awake in the dark, eyes wide open, through the stillness of the house the melody came to me, and the next morning I wrote down the notes of Bethany."

Dr. Louis F. Benson, in writing of the tune, states: "What started the hymn on its free course in America was the tune Bethany, which Lowell Mason wrote for it and published in 1859.  And when the hymn, set to this taking tune, appeared in the wonderfully successful Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book of the professors of Andover Seminary, its general use became assured."  ("Studies of Familiar Hymns,", Second Series.  The Westminster Press.  Philadelphia.  1923).



FEW NAMES were and are as well known in nineteenth-century American music as that of Lowell Mason.  His activities as president of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society (and therefore, by the practice of the time, its conductor) from the late 1820s through the 1840s; his founding of the Boston Academy of Music in 1832; and his almost single-handed establishment of public school music in Boston in 1838, and its eventual spread nation-wide, have all been chronicled to a greater or lesser degree. 

His numerous publications set a pattern for American choral repertoire that lasted, for better or worse, well into the present century; and, it should be observed, he derived considerable financial return from their sale, beginning with the first edition of The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection, published in 1822 over the then far better known name of the Society's organist, Dr. George K. Jackson.  This article will survey Mason's activities as a church musician, rather than as compiler or educator, drawing particular attention to the change in philosophy and emphasis apparent late in his career.

Lowell Mason was born in 1792 in Medfield, Massachusetts.  His early training was with Amos Albee and Oliver Shaw, both of them "tunesmiths" in the old tradition which Mason was to denigrate, and his own work to displace.  At the age of twenty, he moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he was employed in a bank while at the same time serving as choir director ( or "chorister," as it was then termed) at the Independent Presbyterian Church.  With the arrival of that parish's organ in 1820, Mason became organist in addition to his choral duties. His choir gained a reputation for the quality of its performance, its repertoire, and the general coordination of its service music with the scriptural and sermon topics of the day. 

In place of the standard choir fare of the period, which generally included little if anything more progressive than Isaac Watts's hymnody, Mason provided his choir with singable and varied hymn tunes and anthems, many of them adapted (almost certainly under the tutelage of his Savannah mentor , F. L. Abel) from such European masters as Mozart, Corelli and Purcell, but abbreviated and set with texts both familiar and acceptable to American congregations.

The volume eventually published as The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection may serve as an example.  Mason's (unsigned) preface underscored the need for improving church music by making available a repertoire of useful and varied pieces.  Gone were the canonic fuging tunes with their angular melodies and 'rough and ready" harmonies; instead, clear melodies and rhythms with strong yet simple supporting harmonies became the Mason hallmark and the American choir ideal.

The Collection had failed of publication in Philadelphia and, initially, in Boston.  It was Jackson's 1822 endorsement that brought it into print in the latter city.  Once there, however, it went through seventeen editions and 50,000 copies.  In total, Mason's collections were to enjoy sales of over 1,000,000 copies, thereby netting him a not inconsiderable fortune and greatly facilitating his assumption of the musical directorship at New York's Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, some thirty years later, at no salary (although his son William, who served as organist with him, was paid $800 per year).

Mason remained in Savannah; however, in October of 1826 he delivered an address to the vestries of Hanover Street Church (whose pastor was Lyman Beecher) and Third Baptist Church in Boston.  This "Address on Church Music," published that same year by Hillyard, Gray & Co. of Boston, contained an enthusiastic plea for better choirs and organs (the latter by no means universally welcome in either Congregational or Baptist Churches, in Boston or elsewhere, at the time), and less of the old-fashioned lined-out psalmody and fuging tunes.  Texts, said Mason, should be clearly distinguishable and set to simple and "chaste" melodies, judiciously accompanied by instruments, including the organ.  All participation should be in the spirit of religiosity rather than show.  Mason heartily endorsed congregational singing (although not to the exclusion of choirs), and to that end advocated the musical training of children.

As a result of the "Address" and of the Collection, a committee representing nine Boston churches solicited Mason to move from Savannah.  Initially, he was reluctant.  He refused two offers, both quite generous, given the period and national economic condition.  During the summer of 1827, however, he did move to Boston.  His sudden change of heart has been attributed to the imminent vacancy of the presidency (and directorship) of the Handel and Haydn Society; nor can the influence of Lyman Beecher, who coveted Mason's talent for his parish, be discounted in opening the right doors to the latter's realization of his ambition to direct the Handel and Haydn.  Moreover, although Savannah was an old city , it could not be classed with Boston as a cultural center. Finally, both Mason and his wife were from Massachusetts (she was a native of Westborough). On balance, it would appear the Masons' hesitancy was but a bargaining ploy.  It would not be the last time he would show himself sensitive to the intensity with which opportunity was rapping on his door.  The package he was to receive in Boston -- the church work, plus the Handel and Haydn -- had been worth holding out for.  Mason served three churches in rotation, for six months each, at an annual salary of $2,000.  Of course, he was unanimously elected to the Handel and Haydn Society post, although his initial enthusiasm may have been tempered somewhat by the trustees' reservation of the right to choose repertoire, a practice that continued only until 1829.

Beecher's church on Hanover Street had a choir of questionable competence.  Mason instituted a steady twice-a-week rehearsal schedule.  By the time he rotated back to Beecher's parish in late January of 1831, the Hanover Street building had burned, and a new edifice had been erected on Bowdoin Street, in which had been installed a three-manual Thomas Appleton organ.  Mason's choir numbered seventy voices - a size gaining in impact when one considers the modest dimensions of the Bowdoin Street building.

Beecher left for Cincinnati in 1832.  Mason continued at the church until 1844, whereupon he moved to the newer, larger, and rapidly growing Central Church.  Here he had a choir of 100 ( many of the singers having moved from his previous church at his questionably ethical invitation), a full schedule of afternoon "drills" and evening rehearsals -- full and sectional -- each week, and a newer and larger Appleton organ.

During these years his main interest, aside from his steadily profitable publications, appears to have been his educational activities: the Academy, the Conventions, and the Boston public school work.  His 1837 trip to Europe centered on his exploration of Pestalozzian concepts and their application to music education.  He seems to have paid scant attention to church music in England and on the continent.

In 1845, political machinations in the Boston school committee brought about the termination of his services.  In 1851, at the age of 59, Mason retired from Boston musical activity altogether and moved to New York where his sons, Daniel and Lowell, Jr., had a music business.  His career in music education was over; his work in church music had reached a watershed, whether or not he himself was aware of it.

Up to this time, as Pemberton puts it, "church choirs, major performing groups and their proficiency called public attention to his musicianship."  Not that he had not considered the matter of congregational singing.  His 1826 "Address" under-scored its importance; and during his 1837 European trip, he remarked (in passing) on the congregational singing at St. Jacobi, Hamburg.  As early as the 1840s, his interest in congregational singing seems to have been increasing, but after 1851, it became more and more the salient factor in his philosophy of church music.

On December 20, 1851, he again set sail for Europe, landing in England on New Year's Day.  If his 1837 visit had been devoted to educational methods, his 1852 tour was to confirm his enthusiasm for congregational singing over choral and instrumental music in church.  The progress of his travels is chronicled in a set of fifty-four letters covering the approximately fifteen months of his stay.  He visited major churches and cathedrals in England and on the continent.  His descriptions of their size and layout, the conduct of the services, and the quality of music are fulsome and enlightening in a number of ways to us at a century's remove.

In general, Mason judged English choirs and service music harshly.  He was not against Anglican chant - he had tried introducing it to his dissenting Boston congregations - but he disapproved of the rapid and matter-of-fact manner in which it was done, and the utter lack of attention evidenced to the meaning of the texts.  He was impressed with the congregational chanting, floor against galleries, and the singing of Watts's hymns he heard at St. Nicholas', Worcester, whose pastor, the Rev. William H. Havergal, was himself the composer of a number of tunes.  Nor did he consider English organists adequate, although he excepted from his general disapproval two expatriates to America; Edward Hodges of Trinity Church, New York, and A. U. Hayter of Trinity, Boston.

Mason was most impressed with the singing of German congregations, especially what he heard in Leipzig's Nicolaikirche: "The whole house was filled with sound.  It was sublime, and I found myself much more moved by this than the previous choir and orchestra performance."  All 3,000, including standees, had hymnals, and the singing overpowered full organ: "One mighty torrent of sound, rolling the high arches like the rush of many waters."

Moved by his experience, Mason set forth some principles for congregational singing in a letter dated March 29, 1852. Elements essential to "proper musical performance" would be sacrificed: enunciation, for example.  The listener might not be able to distinguish the words; then again, Mason points out, everyone is singing, so there is no listener as such. Everyone has the text before him, so no one need depend on clear articulation by his neighbor to convey the meaning to him.  The mass of tone is the influencing factor, and there need be no concern for traditional musical elements: time, tuning or articulation of text.

But if such be the fact, is congregational singing desirable?  Go with me to the Nicolai Church in Leipzig.  Mark the movings of your own spirit, and you will not need an answer to the question from another.

Mason was similarly taken with the congregational singing in Kreuzkirche, Dresden.  His second visit to Nicolaikirche in Leipzig, on May 2,1852, affected him as profoundly as had his first one, two months earlier: "The plain song of all the people above science, above art, above everything save Him into whose presence it hastens one. ...I came away wishing that the people of America [would] hasten to take appropriate preparatory measures for its introduction."  At the Reformed Church he noted with increasing excitement the volume produced by a congregation of but 150.  Quite astutely he observed: "Music is regarded as one thing, and the singing of hymns quite another.  In the singing of the chorale by the people, good music is not looked for or expected.

Mason's visit to Zurich on June 7, 1852, gave him the chance to compare his immediate past experiences with the Calvinist organ-less, precentor-led hymnody, such as had prevailed during his New England boyhood.  For him, it was a failure.  He concluded that organs and choirs were still essential - in fact, indispensable - for the support of congregational singing.  More important, he cautions that the organist accompanying the congregation should pay no heed to the text and its expression, but rather concern himself solely with playing loudly and firmly so as to support the singing by the large group.

Even as Mason was setting down his thoughts, the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York was completing its new edifice at Nineteenth Street.  The building was especially suitable to Mason's emerging church music ideal: It was large - 200 pews - and had open rafters, with no suspended ceiling to dampen its acoustics.  The pastor was James Waddel Alexander, translator of the chorale text, "0 Sacred Head."  Mason could hardly have asked for a more kindred spirit.

In May of 1853, Mason was appointed music director.  He forthwith persuaded the parish to do away with its choir and orchestra (the latter given to chatting and tuning their instruments during the sermon) and to rent a small organ.  Alexander wrote, "Lowell Mason is our leader, but since his return from Europe, he is so bent on severe tunes and congregational singing. ..that while I am tickled immensely, the people are disappointed.  By the time the large permanent organ was installed in the fall of 1855, Mason had brought his ideal to pass.  Said Dwight's Journal for October 27, 1855: "The whole people join in, supported by the stronger voices which are placed to the front side seats."  A month later, Alexander wrote, "If univocality were all, we have, I think fully attained the end of making our people sing.  I have never heard a louder chorus out of a German church.  As for melody and harmony, your deponent sayeth not."

Mason led the singing; his son, William, played the organ.  The "choir" was spread through the congregation.  Its size is uncertain.  One report describes six "precentors" in black robes stationed at strategic intervals around the large sanctuary.  Mason's success was described as "marvelous. ..and there is no church in the city where so many join in the singing.

But Lowell Mason was along in years.  His tenure at Fifth Avenue Church was comparatively short, and the spread of his ideal outside that parish limited.  Nor could he resist the growing popularity of the professional quartet.  In 1859, Mason, Edwards A. Park and Austin Phelps issued The Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book. Although its popularity was instant, it was neither widespread nor long-lasting.

Two years later, in 1861, Thomas Hutchinson's American Musical Directory listed musical forces in New York's major churches.  Of 86 non-Episcopal, Roman Catholic, or Lutheran congregations, only five - four of them Presbyterian - had adopted organ-supported congregational singing.  By contrast, thirty-one, including the parish for which William Mason was organist, had quartets; six of the latter group were Presbyterian, and two of that six, in proper Presbyterian protocol, still refused to permit the use of an organ in their worship, even while employing the professional quartet!  Clearly, even Fifth Avenue Church could not resist the tide much longer.  Lowell Mason died in 1872; in the early 1880s the parish engaged a quartet for the first time.  It had no other choir until 1926.