Thursday, January 8, 2009

Lowell Mason

Lowell Mason, sometimes called the "father of American church music" was born on this day in 1792. However, his first job was in retail and after that he worked in banking, intending to make it a career. Music was going to be a sideline for him; his first hymnal, containing his own tunes and arrangements, appeared anonymously in 1822. It was published by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston and was extremely successful. He was eventually credited as the editor in later editions of the hymnal.

He took on a few church music director positions, while remaining a banker, but gradually music became more and more important. He is credited with introducing music into the public school curriculum in Boston (from where it spread throughout the country) and he later served as music superintendent of the Boston school district. He also was a co-founder of the Boston Academy of Music, and continued to write church music and hymn tunes. Some estimates of his composed and arranged tunes run as high as 1600. His hymnals and tune collections continued to appear; eventually there were more than 50, in addition to at least 11 secular collections and 17 children's columes and exercise books.

Later in life he was the music director at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. He amassed a large collection of hymnals, which were willed to Yale University, where they are still maintained.

A number of his tunes have already come up here, but today I want to use one of the tunes that he arranged or harmonized.

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Jesus' love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Maker’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
Each other's burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When we are called to part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

This glorious hope revives
Our courage on the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

John Fawcett, 1772; alt.
Tune: DENNIS (S.M.)
Hans Nageli, 19th c.; arr. Lowell Mason, 1845

Mason's contribution to American music has not been universally applauded. He preferred contemporary European classical music and attempted to write in that style, though some feel he was not particularly good at it and his tunes are somewhat dull. That style also supplanted an American style that had flourished up until his time, and earlier composers such as William Billings and Daniel Read were no longer emulated.

The fifth verse of this hymn is sometimes omitted, but surely its message of hope is never out of place. In fact, the verse bridges the end of the third verse to the beginning of the fifth, telling of the sustaining hope for the day when "From sorrow, toil, and pain..." Why leave it out?

The text is by
John Fawcett, whose birthday was also this week (January 6, 1739), and so pushed aside for the Epiphany. Fawcett was first a Methodist, then a Baptist minister in Yorkshire. In 1772 he accepted a position in a London church. He had preached his farewell sermon, the wagons were packed to transport the family to the city, but the "love and tears" of his congregation convinced Fawcett and his wife at the last moment to forego the tempting new position and remain where they were. It is believed that this hymn was written shortly thereafter.


AuntE said...

I have a very specific memory of singing this song at, of all places, a family reunion when I was 9 (more than a few years ago)! The gathering included back 2 generations including all my grandfather's 8 or 9 siblings and their families. There were a lot of people and I had no idea until that day how many relatives I had. I remember for sure that we sang the first verse, but more than that I could not tell you.

There are a handful of other hymns of which I have very specific memories of where I was when singing them. Interesting, eh?

C.W.S. said...

Oh, there are definitely hymns that evoke a specific time and place for me. I've mentioned a few before and I'm sure more will come up in the future. I think it can be true for all music and how it connects with our memory function.

Leland Bryant Ross said...

This is one of those nearly unbreakable weddings of text and tune. Everyone knows the hymn, and to this tune. In my comprehensive index so far there are 26 cases of "Blest be the tie that binds" to Dennis, vs. only 1 case where it's set to Boylston (in For the Living of These Days). Dennis is also used for several other texts ("A parting hymn we sing", "And are we yet alive", "My times are in thy hand", and "How gentle Gods commands". Not to mention innumerable parodies and campfire songs, of which the two I like the best are

Blest be the tie that binds
My collar to my shirt.
I'm wasting no dollars in buying new collars
To hide that ring of dirt.


The frog, he are a queer bird.
He ain't got no tail, almost hardly.
When he walk he yump, when he yump he sit down,
Where he ain't got no tail, almost hardly.

Be forewarned that the Christian Scientists use the tune name Dennis to refer to an entirely different tune (by Thalben-Ball), to which they set the Horatius Bonar text "Beloved, let us love")

Leland Bryant Ross said...

One other good old campfire text for Dennis is

I wish that my room had a floor;
I don't care so much for a door,
But this walking around without touching the ground
Is getting to be quite a bore.

And here's a midi link for DENNIS (Thalben-Ball).

Leland aka Haruo