The Week in Early American History

TWEAHWelcome to your weekly roundup of early American history headlines. Now that you’ve aced your presidential history knowledge,  and reviewed this reading list of their lives, it’s on to the links! Continue reading

Lowell Mason’s Family Tree of Teachers

Mason ex.It is well known that Lowell Mason (1792-1872) was a major figure in 19th-century American music education. He pioneered the first public school music curriculum in Boston in the 1830s, and thanks, in part, to his efforts music was a integral part of public education for the next 150+ years. If you studied music in grade school, you can thank (or blame) Mason. My own career as an educator and a musician is indebted to Mason’s innovations. With the fall semester about to begin, I find myself wondering about the intellectual, pedagogical, and personal lineages between teachers and students. What can I learn from Lowell Mason’s “family tree” of teachers? Can tracing our own lineages help us understand what kind of teachers we are? Continue reading

“It is now translated to America”: British Hymns in the Revolutionary Era

Ps. 75 titleThe Watkinson Library at Trinity College has an impressive collection of manuscript music from the late eighteenth century. Thanks to a grant from the Bibliographical Society of America, I spent a few weeks in June on a research road trip in New England, and Trinity was my first stop. Although I was focusing on musical commonplace books and copybooks, at the suggestion of librarian Sally Dickinson I also worked with their collection of annotated hymnals. It was while perusing these volumes that I came across something I hadn’t seen before: a hymnal in which every reference to Britain had been crossed out and replaced with the word “America” or related terms (New England, Western States, United States, etc.) As the assiduous penman noted at the bottom of one page, the entire volume had been “translated to America.”

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Savage Song

RameauRecently I’ve been taken by the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, a French Baroque composer and Enlightenment-era music theorist. Rameau was a divisive figure in his day because he broke from the supremely elegant and nuanced style that had made the court of Louis XIV the center of late-17th-century musical life in Europe. This excerpt from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1676 opera Atys gives a sense of the sensitivity and sophistication of 17th-c. French music. Compared to Lully, Rameau’s music was daring and experimental. He turned the orchestra into a powerful beast and wrote music that more dense, more harmonically adventuresome, and more aggressive. He was Frank Sinatra to Lully’s Bing Crosby, the Rolling Stones to Herman’s Hermits, N.W.A. to De La Soul; etc. (making analogies is curiously addictive). Continue reading

Shall We Listen to That Again?

I’m working on my syllabus for next semester. This is a new class at a relatively new job, and I have spent approximately 1,000 hours agonizing over the structure of the class and the difficulty of the readings, tweaking the language of the course description, and trying to find the most fair and opportune balance for the assignments. But mostly, making this syllabus has made me reconsider the role of listening in the classroom. Listening to music, that is.

Since I teach at an elite conservatory where all of the students are training to be (or already are) professional performers, we listen to music in every class meeting. This particular course, on representations of the “exotic” in western music from c. 1600 to today, features approximately 30 pieces of music. I treat these pieces like primary sources. The students are expected to listen to the assigned piece in advance, and in class we listen to excerpts in order to ground our discussion. I introduce other musical examples to illustrate points or guide the discussion in new directions. Sometimes the students draw on their own experiences as performers, making connections between the course materials and music they’ve encountered elsewhere. Continue reading

Music and Pleasure

If you have gone hunting for early American music, you probably came across warhorses like 17th-century psalms, “Yankee Doodle” and other Revolutionary songs, maybe William Billings’s extremely popular “Chester” (don’t know this last one? Watch a very earnest John Adams sing it here). All of these can make for excellent musical examples to enliven a class or conference presentation (and I’ll write about music for both those scenarios in the future). However, sometimes listening to recordings of psalms or military marches feels too much like eating a virtuous salad, and not enough like eating ice cream. My survey of recordings is completely unscientific—happily, there is far too much diversity in early American music to provide anything like comprehensive coverage in a blog post—but it seems to me that there is a dearth of albums that are meant for pleasure rather than instruction. Continue reading