Friday, January 8, 2016

Lowell Mason

Music educator and composer Lowell Mason (1792-1872) was born today in Medfield, Massachusetts. His parents were choir singers and his father a string player, and young Lowell learned several instruments and studied music both in a singing school and with composer Oliver Shaw. At age 16 he became director of his church choir, and at 18 he conducted the Medfield town band.

However, he did not initially seek out a music career as an adult, first working in a dry goods store in Savannah, Georgia in which he eventually became a partner. At the same time, he served Savannah's Independent Presbyterian Church as organist and Sunday school superintendent. Following the death of his partner in the store in 1817, Mason went into banking as his "real" job while continuing his musical and educational interests on the side.  He founded the Savannah Missionary Society in 1818 and opened the first Sunday school in the country for black children in 1826. 

While continuing as a banker, his musical sideline during the 1820s was arranging hymn tunes from the melodies of European composers, and writing some of his own in similar style, which were tried out on his Savannah congregation. After a few unsuccessful tries at publishing a collection of these tunes, his book came out as The Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music in 1822, in cooperation with that venerable Boston organization. The book was an immediate success, selling more than fifty thousand copies over at least twenty separate editions. Mason returned to Boston, where he was music director at several different churches and eventually led the Handel and Haydn Society.  Over the rest of his lifetime he published at least fifty hymn tune collections. And yet he still kept a job in banking for a few more years.

Mason's arrangements took melodies from European composers and transformed them into four-part hymn tunes. HAMBURG, for example, was from a Benedictus of Vincent Novello, and AZMON from German composer Carl Glaser.  Today's tune, HENDON, which also still appears in hymnals today, is from Swiss Protestant minister and hymn tune composer Henri Abraham César Malan.

Ask me what great thing I know,
That delights and stirs me so?
What the high reward I win?
Whose the name I glory in?
Jesus Christ, the Crucified.
What is faith’s foundation strong?
What awakes my heart to song?
He who bore my earthly load,
Purchased for me peace with God,
Jesus Christ, the Crucified.
Who defeats my fiercest foes?
Who consoles my saddest woes?
Who revives my fainting heart,
Healing all its hidden smart?
Jesus Christ, the Crucified.
Who is life in life to me?
Who the death of death will be?
Who will place me on his right,
With the countless hosts of light?
Jesus Christ, the Crucified.
This is that great thing I know;
This delights and stirs me so;
Faith in him who died to save,
Him who triumphed over the grave:
Jesus Christ, the Crucified.

Johann Schwedler, 1741; tr. Benjamin H. Kennedy, 1863
Tune: HENDON (
H. A. César Malan, 1827; harm. Lowell Mason, 1841

Eventually Mason seems to have been convinced that he could have a full career in music, and left banking to become the first teacher of music in an American public school in 1837, a program that he had developed and for which he won acceptance.  Not long after he became the first superintendent of the music program in all Boston schools.  The program was a success and was copied across the country and even in Europe.

After Mason's success in the musical and educational fields, he came to disparage the singing school movement that had previously been the primary form of musical education in the country (and where he had studied as a child).  The style of the earlier American composers died out, replaced in fashion by European models of composition that were now considered more respectable.

In 2010, a group of Medfield, MA citizens came together to halt the demolition of the Mason family house. They were successful in moving the building to another site and have continued efforts to establish the house as 'a significant historical and educational resource' and to honor the life and career of Lowell Mason.

Seven Years Ago: Lowell Mason

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