The"Better Music" Boys
Excerpt from A Short Shaped-Note Singing
By Keith Willard
The singing school, a vigorous social
institution developed in the
English parish country side, was continued in eighteenth century New England.
Invented in part to improve the quality of congregational singing, the singing
school soon outstripped its purely church-centered focus and became an integral
part of the social life of the community. Held for a week or month at a time,
itinerant singing school masters would teach both secular and sacred three-
and four-part music to a room filled with energetic colonial young adults
of both sexes.
These singing masters frequently became their own tunesmiths, cranking out
lively pieces, arranged in harmonies that emphasized polyphonic rather than
vertical harmonic lines. Instead of composing in conformance with rigid European
conservatory "rules" of the times, tunesmiths such as William Billings,
Daniel Read, and Justin Morgan used as models the vigorous Scottish and English
parish church psalmody which made free use of counterpoint and dance rhythms
coupled with loose harmonic rules.
In New England, the singing school institution flowered briefly in the period
prior to the Revolutionary war but then faded. A post war influx of European
style trained musicians, systematically campaigned for the removal of this "crude
and lewd" music and its schools. Under the influence of Lowell Mason and
like ilk, the teaching of singing moved from the informal process of community
singing schools to the rigid (and regulated) control of the public schools.
The "Better Music Movement" was largely successful
in the cities of the North.
Excerpt from the
Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc., New World Records, liner notes,
commenting on Lowell Mason......
Mason was the latter-day chief of the "scientific" Better
Music movement that drove the popular shape-note tune books of
the old Yankee singing masters out of New England, leaving what
used to be called the Old Southwest (then not including Texas)
the only spirited congregational singing in the country to this
day, and bequeathing the Protestant Church in the Atlantic states
its long, sad heritage of hired soloists, paid choirs, and shamefaced
congregational mumbling. Not in the more than twelve hundred
hymns with which Mason denatured our acts of communal praise
nor in the pious secular inanities he pumped into our public-school
music books is there a trace of our antecedent musical history
or our native musical vitality. His hymns are so dully correct
in harmony, so feeble in melody, and so uniform in their watery
characterlessness that they constitute a monument to Christian
antimusicality. At length one realizes that there is one function
in which they are superb. Mason's hymns, like Charles Grobe's
piano pieces, are marvelous commodities. Mason in fact packaged
hymns as others packaged beans or cod, and there is evidence
that he was not above exploiting a monopoly situation in the
hymn and schoolbook markets.
Excerpt from the writings of "The Community
Band of Brevard"
The combination of the solfege singing system and the shaped note printing
system fostered the popularity and wide spread of social singing events
in America. However, the "Better Music Movement" led by Lowell
Mason in the early nineteenth century pushed for the removal of this "crude
and lewd" music. Mason's movement was successful except in the rural
South (regions of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas).
George Pullen Jackson, an early 20th-century shape-note
music scholar, lumped Mason and the other critics together as the "Better
Music boys" and rued their influence as they moved west in
the 1830s and 40s
(White Spirituals 16-19).
there you have it...... Lowell Mason and his "better music" boys
were responsible for a wave of music censorship that forced
the music of our earliest American composers out of establishment
music circles, out of school music courses, out of churches
and into the world of "shape
note" singing, where it was preserved and saved from
the censorship of Mason and his ilk.
The "better music" boys
did manage to create a situation where the music of our first
American composers remained almost unknown, even
in most University music programs. Until the 20th Century that
is...... when the modern wave of American composers
rediscovered this music and it once again saw the light of day.
to the William Billings page
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