New England Harmony: A Collection of Early American Choral Music

Tue, 01/13/2015 - 10:39am -- anonymous

It’s probably fair to state that historical New-England Protestant sacred music, or psalmody, is today a niche interest.  However, psalmody, or the choral setting of (typically) psalms in rounds, fugues and anthems, amounted to the most diverse selection available to students enrolled in 18th century community 'singing schools', popular in New England's more densely-settled areas including here in Newport. Indeed in the heavily religious culture of the time, music-making was primarily for spiritual uplifting; secondly, as entertainment for various civic, community or religiously motivated observations in the meetinghouses or the city square. There were few if any ‘professional’ musicians or music teachers; many of them had to take up various supplementary side-jobs such as liquor merchant (Selby & Read), tanner (Billings), haberdasher (Swan), farmer (Belknap), cooper (Ingalls) and schoolmaster (Kimball). In a 1964 Smithsonian Folkways CD recording held here at the Redwood entitled “New England Harmony: A Collection of Early American Choral Music” (MV.C OLD.S 2007), we are introduced to many of these early American composers who primarily and with some exceptions were self-taught and wrote simple, yet powerful melodies but with very little European-influenced harmonic qualities. To the modern ear, these compositions can sound rough hewn and somewhat alien; for example, the tenor, unlike the usual role for soprano, often ‘carries the tune’ making the whole effect sound thicker and earthier; the simplistic, old English FA-SOL-LA four-note notation was utilized for training purposes, rather than the richer DO-RE-MI system, and, in addition, most of these amateur compositions were performed a cappella with little or no instrumentation to distract from the puritanical sacredness. Again, this changes slowly over the latter half of the 18th century with the introduction first of recorders, then the “devil’s fiddle” or bass viol (see my previous blog on de Gamba music), and then, by early 19th century, wind and string instruments were regularly utilized as accompaniment throughout New England. By the beginning of the 19th century more formal, continental modalities were utilized and promoted throughout New England while fugal-songs, so popular at mid-century, were ridiculed as crude and backwards. John Hubbard’s Essay on Music (Boston, 1808) became an instrumental précis against the native compositional style of New England psalmody.        

Newport also had a vibrant 18th century musical scene with Charles (Karl) Theodore Pachelbel’s famed tenure as Trinity's organist during the early part of the decade; later in the 1780’s, former-slave turned freedman Gardner Newport’s racially ground-breaking compositional work in consort with the Rev. Andrew Law’s singing school, tune-books and shape-notation vocal training system helped transition away from native psalmody towards a more formal style (see John Millar’s article in the spring, 1980 edition of the Newport Historical Society Bulletin).* In an interesting side-note, Pachelbel, son of the  esteemed Johann, certainly composed in a more formal fashion but was organist for only two years during the height of pre-revolutionary Newport fervor. As the century moves closer to 1776, music-making becomes much more “native” sounding as European (mainly contemporary English) inspired  models are abandoned until, again, the early 19th century.   Although the recording held at the Redwood does not contain any Gardner (unfortunately much of his music is lost) nor any Law, it does represent an overview of 14 New England psalmody composers performed in the original manner by, and in keeping with tradition, the amateur Sturbridge Singers. Originally recorded in 1964, this re-mastered CD was produced in 2007 and purchased in 2011.

We have recently ordered a CD entitled “I am the Rose of Sharon: vol. 1” from The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble. On it, you’ll be able to hear a rendition of Connecticut composer Daniel Read’s (1757-1836) anthem Newport, the only Newport-inspired psalmody recording currently available. Look for it in our “new CD” section in the Rovensky Delivery Room in the coming weeks.   


If you enjoyed this musical selection, you might like...

Naxos Music streaming library recording of "Early American Choral Music vol. 1 and 2." By Paul Hillier's Consort

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*Also see NHS Gardner letter 2012 acquisition:


 Works consulted at Redwood Library:

Buechner, Alan and Arthur Schrader. “New England Harmony: A Collection of American Choral Music”, Folkways records: 1964. PDF file of liner notes. [Accessed from web 1/8/2015]

Livingston, Carolyn and Dawn Elizabeth Smith. Rhode Island’s Musical Heritage, an Exploration. Sterling Heights Michigan: Harmonie Park Press, 2008.

Millar, John F. “Newport’s Early Composers”. Newport Historical Society Bulletin. Spring 1980: 67-76. Print

Sadie, Stanley.  The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. NY: Macmillan, 1980