Monday, November 22, 2010

Successive Cecilias

I have mentioned before my ongoing interest in the women composers of worship music, including hymn tunes, gospel songs, and service music. It seems that today, the feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, might be an appropriate time to share some of what I've learned over the last few years.

Over the last century there has been a good deal of interest in women who wrote hymn texts. There are a number of books on that topic, from Lady Hymn Writers (1897) and Songs from the Heart of Women (1903) up to Sing the Wondrous Love of Jesus (2005). But the women who wrote the music for hymn texts are not so often studied or written about. While there has been increased interest in women composers in general over the last thirty tears or so, most often they are women who wrote in larger forms, like symphonies or operas (such as Amy Beach), and the general books about them take no notice of the many women writing tunes for congregational singing.

Using the internet you can probably access more hymnals and songbooks than you'd find in most university or seminary libraries. I've downloaded hundreds of them and looked through many more that I didn't need cluttering up my hard drive. I also have a collection of hymnals in the dozens. Thus far I have unearthed over a thousand pieces composed by more than three hundred and fifty women, from standard four-part hymn tunes, gospel songs and children's songs to service music and Anglican chants. I'm focusing primarily on works in the public domain, published in this country before 1923, but most of these women are unknown to the singers of today. Most of their tunes appeared only in one book and never made it into the next generation of books.

These are the women thus far with more than a dozen tunes I've seen. I've written about some of them (the ones that are linked) but not others for various reasons (little or no information available about them, including birth or death dates, no sound files available, etc). Even most of these women rarely appear in the hymnals of today.

Mary Shaw Attwood
Pluma Brown
Grace Weiser Davis
Mari R. Hofer
Lucy Rider Meyer
Emma T. Mitchell
Emma Mundella

Having looked through many many nineteenth-century hymnals I've also compiled a list of the dozen or so women who had at least one tune that appeared in multiple hymnals before 1900.

Elizabeth Barker -- ST. JOHN DAMASCENE
Charlotte Barnard -- BROCKLESBURY
Mary Ann Browne -- PLYMOUTH ROCK
Elizabeth Cuthbert -- HOWARD
Frances Ridley Havergal -- HERMAS, EIRENE
Phoebe Knapp -- ASSURANCE
Mary Palmer -- CLARE MARKET
Ann Baird Spratt -- KEDRON
Sarah Stock -- MOEL LLYS (not named at that page, but that's it)
Charlotte Streatfield -- LANGTON
Maria Tiddeman -- IBSTONE
Lizzie Tourjée -- WELLESLEY

I would guess that only four of these tunes remain in somewhat common use today: BROCKLESBURY, HERMAS, ASSURANCE, and WELLESLEY. Some are simply not in a style that we would find melodic or interesting today, and some were written for a particular text in an unusual meter that is no longer sung.

Much of this music is perhaps not worthy of reconsideration. Much of it may never be sung again. But I believe that there are definitely things among these thousand-plus compositions that could be brought out in the open again. When we consider the whole vast body of musical composition for our hymns and songs, a certain percentage survives over time because it's good and singable. Another (far larger) percentage is discarded and forgotten, and deservedly so in many cases. But there are always things that were left behind because they never received a wide distribution. Tunes that appeared in one book with a minimal print run may deserve a second look, and we may find singable and serviceable music that can still be used in our worship.

I'm still looking, and the more I look, the more I suspect that I may have just scratched the surface of what is out there. The women of specific denominations and smaller groups wrote music that was seen and preserved by even fewer people, such as the Shakers or the Salvation Army. Religious communities of women have produced their own books for worship, such as the Holy Face Hymnal (1891), which was published by the Sisters of Mercy in Providence, RI. Most tunes in that book bear only the attribution "Music by S. of M." - we will probably never know the names of the women who wrote them.

If you have an obscure hymnal or two and think you may have something by a woman I haven't found, I'd be happy to hear about it. I think there are some further aspects to the subject that I'll write more about from time to time.

P.S. The illustration above is from Saint Cecilia at the Organ (1671), by Carlo Dolci

One Year Ago: Saint Cecilia

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