Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Theodore Edson Perkins

Composer Theodore Edson Perkins was born on July 21, 1831 in Poughkeepsie, NY, son of a Baptist minister. All ten children in the family received musical instruction from an early age, and Perkins went on to become a music teacher himself.

In 1855, he sought further training at the Normal Academy of Music in Massachusetts, under
Lowell Mason and George Root, and then became an assistant instructor there. He next partnered with William Bradbury at the summer Geneseo Institute, a competing enterprise that had earlier caused a rift between Mason and Bradbury, two of the most important figures in American church music at the time. Perkins's decision to work there was probably not popular with Mason and Root, but after a few years Perkins went on to lead a number of music education institutions of his own.

Perkins published his first book of sacred music, The Olive-Branch, in 1860. It sold more than 100,000 copies, which led him to bring out thirty-three more collections over the course of his life. He supplied tunes for many of the text writers of the day, many for
Fanny Crosby, with whom he also collaborated on a cantata, The Excursion. Though his most widely used tunes were gospel songs, he also wrote more conventional hymn tunes, such as this one.

Absent from flesh! O blissful thought!
What unknown joys this moment brings!
Freed from the mischiefs sin has brought,
From pains, and fears, and all their springs.

Absent from flesh! illustrious day!
Surprising scene! triumphant stroke
That rends the prison of my clay;
And I can feel my fetters broke.

Absent from flesh! then rise, my soul,
Where feet nor wings could never climb,
Beyond the heav’ns, where planets roll,
Measuring the cares and joys of time.

I go where God and glory shine,
Whose presence makes eternal day:
My all that’s mortal I resign,
For angels wait and point my way.

Isaac Watts, 1707; alt.

Theodore E. Perkins, 19th c.

I had not yet picked a Perkins tune for today but accidentally happened on this one while looking at Isaac Watts hymns for Friday's entry. "Absent from flesh" is no longer how we would refer to death (it comes from 2 Corinthians 5:8) but the verse did appear on Watts's gravestone: Absent fron the body, and present with the Lord.

Perkins continued a busy musical career throughout his life, directing church choirs in several congregations, teaching at various institutions, and writing and publishing his tunes. In 1873 he was the music director for the ten-day meeting of the
Evangelical Alliance in New York City, and was thereafter often called upon for similar large-scale events, such as the first meeting of the American Sunday Achool Association, or the golden anniversary of the American Female Guardian Society (where he led a childrens' chorus of more than four thousand). In spite of his many accomplishments, like so many of his contemporaries, his music is mostly unknown today.


AuntE said...

CWS, do you think these composers are largely unknown today because there were just too many of them all the same? Or is it reluctance (on the part of the present generation) to admit that maybe they had something going (hymn-wise) back then?

Also, am wondering if you will be posting about the Hymn Society goings on?

C.W.S. said...

I've thought a lot about this, looking though dozens of nineteenth-century hymnals and songbooks at hundreds, possibly thousands of texts and tunes that may have appeared only once. We say that the good stuff endures, which is true, but I don't think that everything that has not endured is therefore not good. There has been (and still is, really) an enormous amount of congregational song produced, especially over the last 150 years, and there just isn't room for it all to survive. Yes, some of it wasn't worthy of survival, but I also think there are many "lost" items that deserve another look, that were left out of later collections, or were published in books that didn't gain a wide circulation.

Perkins was certainly acclaimed in his day, but while he wrote several tunes for Fanny Crosby, none of them were finally among her top ten or so which remain popular today. His style may just have been considered old-fashioned as time went on; many of the texts he wrote tunes for are now only known with other tunes. I may not have written about him at all except that he was born in my home town.

This doesn't even touch on the insistence of many on the new and up-to-date, which of course is not just a modern view. But when you decide (not unreasonably) that a certain proportion of the hymns and songs you use must come from the last 20 years or so, that means that the new is always crowding out some portion of the older. So it's partly a practical consideration, not just "we don't like the old stuff"

So, I think there's no simple answer. However, with the technology available to us today (internet, music publishing software, etc.), we have more options than existed in the past to bring some of these older works out to be used again to see if there is some life left in them. So while published hymnals may become smaller, the variety of available congregational song can be larger than ever.

I'm not sure if I have much more to say about the Hymn Society Conference (and this is a busy week for birthdays and such, which may not all make it into the blog), but maybe.

Dorothy said...

I just finished reading "Her Heart Can See," the Fanny Crosby biography and of course Perkins figures prominently in it.

For the world of hymns, especially older ones, I guess the world of technology has been a real benefit! I am glad of it!