Monday, March 23, 2009

Fugues: Music of the Devil?

“Beware you be not swallowed up in books!”

So cautioned English evangelist John Wesley, founder of the Anglican revivalist faith that became known as Methodism and which was formally organized into the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States in 1784 (today part of the United Methodist Church). Wesley's warning often haunts me in both the metaphorical sense (for example, when I take a break from reading for my graduate studies by doing some research on my books for this blog) and sometimes in the physical sense (ever been to Derby Square Books in Salem, MA?).

This week’s book is a Methodist devotional songbook with the typically over-precise title The Methodist Harmonist, containing A Great Variety of Tunes Collected from the Best Authors, Adapted to All the Various Metres in the Methodist Hymn-Book, and Designed for the Use of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. To Which is Added a Choice Selection of Anthems and Pieces, for Particular Occasions. The book had its copyright registered by the original publishers N. Bangs and T. Mason, under the hand of James Dill, Clerk of the Southern District of New York. The manuscript of the book was completed on October 23, 1821 and published in 1822, representing a year-long effort by a four-man committee (John M. Smith, Daniel Ayres, John D. Myers, and G. P. Disosway) specifically convened by the 1820 Methodist Episcopal General Conference. As far as I can determine, subsequent editions appeared in 1827, 1831, 1833, and 1841. The second and third editions were largely reprints of the first, but the 1833 edition changed the notation to shape-note and the 1841 edition greatly expanded the contents.

The book’s popularity can be attributed to the large niche it occupied in both the Church’s service and social life; hymnals at the time provided lyrics but no musical notation to indicate the tune to which the song should be sung. The Methodist Harmonist not only provided congregations with the correct melodies but also supplies harmony lines for all of the songs included (for those more ambitious or simply more musically-gifted assemblies, I suppose). The 1822 first edition is extremely rare (estimated assessed value is around $500); this edition (the third) is valued at approximately $100-$150 and came to my collection from my grandfather's collection. While books in houses of worship are often treated with reverence, the sheer volume of use to which they are subjected over the years (and which necessitated their constant replacement through the publication of later editions) means that it is often difficult to find extant copies that are in good or excellent condition. These were books that (like children’s books or school books) were truly practical objects, meant to be used over and over again and not simply read once and then stored away on the shelf.

The book was published by J. Emory and B. Waugh of New York and printed by J. Collord in 1831. The imprint notes also that it is “to be had of the Methodist preachers in the cities and country”, an interesting variation on the usual retail distribution rhetoric to be found in imprints of the period. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s Collord printed numerous other works for the Methodist Church including The Life of Rev. Henry Martyn, Missionary to India (1837), Bible Stories for Children (1846), and numerous Sabbath school history and text books. Emory and Waugh, both of whom may have been abolitionists (a defining feature of many evangelical Christian churches, including the Methodist Episcopalians), often published in partnership for the Church, including hymnals, Bibles, New Testaments, and didactic works.

L. Moore provides the following comments (the website also provides MIDI synthesized recordings of the songs in the Harmonist):

Sacred Harp singers with a taste for research may first encounter The Methodist Harmonist on the Web in its later shaped note incarnation, as printed beginning in 1833. I have read mild deprecations of it as a four-shape book because it doesn't contain many New England or Western tunes. But this is calling the glass half empty: we should instead rejoice that Billings, Read, Timothy Swan, Lewis Edson and Amos Bull have places made for them alongside John Cole of Baltimore, the anonymous American composer of "Forest" and English Dissenter or West Gallery composers like James Leach, Thomas Clark of Canterbury, William Arnold of Portsea and Thomas Walker, as well as a host of other--at the time--well-known English composers (Boyce, Randall, Shoel, Costellow, Harwood, and so on.)

The Methodist Harmonist was assembled by a four person committee, John M. Smith, Daniel Ayres, John D. Myers and G. P. Disosway. Only Gabriel P. Disosway (1799-1868) has other bibliographic attributions--he authored a book of children's sermons in 1864, another about the earliest churches of New York in 1865, and an essay about Huguenots in America included in a larger book by Samuel Smiles, The Self Help Man, in 1867. I have not seen evidence that any of the four were composers, or that they themselves altered or arranged the tunes and anthems included in the book. Most tunes included are printed in 3- or 4-part arrangements, although a handful of tenor-bass tunes are inserted here and there. The committee made excellent choices overall: in a relatively small collection (247 pages of music) they allowed in very few dull tunes. The book was planned for use in worship, not as a singing-master's textbook. As was customary throughout the period, most tunes have only one stanza of text provided, the expectation being that the singers (either as a choir or singing society) would balance tunebook and hymnbook on their knees or laps in order to sing the rest of a hymn, or a metrical alternative to the text attached to the tune.

The book is bound neatly in marbled paper-covered boards with a brown leather spine (what looks like faded residue from a sticker's glue remains on the front cover); at the front of the book there is a blank pastedown and blank flyleaf; at the back there is one blank flyleaf and the torn remains of a second, along with a blank pastedown. It was printed in octavo with 135 leaves measuring 13cm x 21.5cm each. These oblong measurements suggest the sheets were originally ledger or tabloid size paper; the type for the pages would have been set twice in the forme--one setting above the other--and each sheet, after printing and perfecting, would then be cut in half down the middle. Coincidentally, this practice was also followed by the U.S. military during World War II to mass produce paperback novels for servicemen overseas (something that, according to the New York Times, the military experimented with again in 2002).

As noted above, the book is in good condition, with only one of the back flyleaves torn out. Some of the page corners are turned down (perhaps inadvertently) and there is foxing throughout. Someone has taken a pencil rather aggressively to the blank flyleaves and pastedowns; most of the marks thus made are vigorous but meaningless scribbles across the page, but the name “Wightman” appears penciled very faintly on the recto of the front flyleaf.

After the title page, the book is followed by a preface relating the importance of “the science of sacred music” to the service and faith of the Methodist Episcopal church, along with the report of the committee assigned to assemble the book explaining their objectives: they purposefully selected tunes easily sung by the whole congregation, they have cross-referenced the Harmonist to the approved service hymn-book, they attempted to draw songs from a diverse geographic range both within the United States and abroad, and because “of that clause of our discipline which disapproves of fugue tunes [they] passed by those distinguished by that peculiarity.” I have no idea what it is precisely about the fugue that the Methodists found objectionable, but it was apparently felt to be corruptive enough to be the only genre of music specifically banned in the denomination’s devotional music.

Following the preface there are eight pages of “A Brief Introduction to the Science of Music”, meant to assist those members of the congregation for whom music is a new pursuit. This section covers the basics of reading musical notation, including sections on clefs, notes and rests, musical “characters” (that is, markings), timing, keys (including both major and minor, as well as how to transpose), a series of four exercises, and a brief glossary of terms. The conclusion of this Introduction, however, reminds the reader that all of the “scientific” knowledge of music in the world won’t help if one isn’t moved by the spirit: “We cannot attain the true pleasure of Sacred Music unless we feel a genuine spirit of devotion...”

The songs in the book (approximately two hundred in number) are almost all presented in the same fashion, with the name of the congregational community or geographic region from which it originates, the appropriate hymn number, the name of the composer, and usually the number of syllables contained in each line. In addition to the hymns, the book includes a selection of twelve “anthems and pieces”, or non-hymn songs, appropriate for various church occasions. These twelve are presented with more notational complexity, including often parts for multiple voices and more detailed instructions in the way of dynamics, tempo, and tone. At the back of the book there is an index of songs listed alphabetically by congregational community or geographic region, as well as an index listing songs by their metrical identity.

For those of you (both of you) who are musically inclined, there may be some interest in the different terms used for elements of musical notation at this time. Here are some from the Methodist Harmonist, with their modern equivalents (interestingly, a number of the older terms are still used for musical notation in the United Kingdom):

Ledger lines = Bar lines

Cliff = Clef

Counter Cliff = C-Clef

Semibreve = Whole-note

Minim = Half-note

Crotchet = Quarter-note

Quaver = Eighth-note

Semi-quaver = Sixteenth-note

Demi-semi-quaver = Thirty-second-note

In addition, the bass clef symbol looks like an inverted C, the repeat bar is replaced with a column of four dots in each space on the staff, the end bar is made of two thick bars backed by a short bar centered on the staff, and the notation sometimes uses a squiggly mark over a note (called a “direct”) to indicate the placement of the previous note. They also have terms for things such as notes held over a bar line (“driving notes”) and for notation to indicate that the singer should choose one of the notes presented to sing (“choice notes”, which sounds like a recipe for choral anarchy to me). Grace notes are referred to, rather gracefully, as appogioaturas. The different timing marks have between two and four different “moods”, indicated by the time signature, with each mood slightly changing how the beats are emphasized in each measure.

From the fifteenth century up until the switch to machine printing in the 1850s, the printing of music was a specialized trade (just like printing books in non-Roman alphabets) that demanded specially trained compositors and proofers, as well as unique type pieces. I always enjoy lingering over the pages of a hand-press period music book, such as The Methodist Harmonist, and noting how the craftsmen employed their specialized knowledge with care and precision in order to ensure that the harmonious rhythms of the printing process resulted ultimately in a harmoniously sounded piece of music.


  1. You will now have to assume a readership of 3, and the phrase "both of you" will have to be abandoned.

    What does "foxing" mean, dear Dr.-to-be Pangallo?

  2. Foxing refers to the brown spots that often appear on old paper (sheets manufactured before the advent of acid-free paper making), probably as a result of prolonged exposure to moisture or humidity.

    The term is of unknown origin and may refer to either the color of the spots (reddish-brown, like a fox) or to the chemical ferric oxide, which may be the cause of the discoloration (you'd know more about that than I would, Pangallo).

    Another less well known theory is that the spots are called foxing because of their resemblance to fox piss on the paper. But nobody outside of myself subscribes to that theory.

    Fortunately, foxing is normal and does not contribute to either the deterioration of the paper or the value of the book.