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Music: The Movement for Reform

Music: The Movement for Reform


Andrew Law. As the music of Billings and his followers became increasingly influential, it provoked a powerful reaction that revealed the unease with which many Americans greeted the social tendencies embodied in such music. The leader of this resistance was Andrew Law, a member of a prominent Connecticut family whose emphasis on order and gentility in music was the product of his privileged social background. Law was best known as a promoter of singing schools and a compiler of songbooks, including his own collection of psalm and hymn tunes, Select Harmony (1778). In contrast to Billingss emphasis on spontaneity and naturalness, Law insisted on refined singing and good or genteel pronunciation. He sought to replace Billingss indigenous tunes with music composed in the European style. In the 1793 edition of his Musical Primer Law accused American composers of writing tunes that would encourage and accommodate harsh singing. Such tunes, Law declared, had proliferated to the great prejudice of much better music, produced even in this country, and almost to the utter exclusion of genuine European compositions.

Wild Fuges. As Laws effort to reform American music gained momentum during the early nineteenth century, its followers were especially critical of fuguing tunes, which exemplified for them all the most objectionable qualities of American music. These reformers wanted not just to refine American music, but also to restore it to an exclusively religious and spiritual purpose. In 1807 Elias Mann railed against those wild fuges, the rapid and confused movements, which have so long been the disgrace of Congregational psalmody, and the contempt of the judicious and tasteful amateur. For such critics, fuguing tunes were primitive forms that generated a dangerous sense of excitement and enthusiasm. Warning that such feelings encouraged performers and listeners to become involved in the music for its own sake, they charged that such threatened to supplant the true function of musicto promote religious piety.

Thomas Hastings. One of the most forceful exponents of this view was Thomas Hastings. A resident of New York City for most of his life, Hastings achieved prominence as a composer, choir director, and musical compiler. His best-known compilation was Musica Sacra (1818), a collection of anthem, psalm, and hymn tunes. Though it was similar in format to Billingss tune books, Hastingss book excluded fuguing tunes and included many works by foreign composers such as George Frideric Handel and Joseph Haydn. In his collection Hastings warned that music used for personal gratification, emolution, distinction, or display is likely to awaken some of the baser passions of the human heart. In contrast, when music is cultivated strictly for social and beneficial purposes, and especially for the promotion of the praise and glory of God, and the edification of his people, its tendencies are necessarily and decidedly of the opposite nature.


Gilbert Chase, Americas Music From the Pilgrims to the Present (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987);

Richard A. Crawford, Andrew Law, American Psalmodist (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968);

Charles Hamm, Music in the New World (New York: Norton, 1983).

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