Wednesday, January 8, 8792

Lowell Mason (1792-1872)

Lowell Mason (January 8, 1792 - August 11, 1872) was a leading figure in American church music, the composer of over 1600 hymns, many of which are often sung today. He was also largely responsible for introducing music into American public schools, and is considered to be the first important music educator in the United States. In the last part of his career, as music director of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, he radically transformed American church music from a practice of having professional choirs and accompaniment to congregational singing accompanied by organ music.

Mason was born and grew up in Medfield, Massachusetts, but spent the first part of his adulthood in Savannah, Georgia, where he worked first in a dry-goods store, then in a bank. He had very strong amateur musical interests, and studied music with the German teacher Frederick L. Abel, eventually starting to write his own music. He also became a leader in the music of the Independent Presbyterian Church, where he served as choir director and organist. Under his initiative, his church also created the first Sunday school for black children in America.

Following an earlier British model, Mason embarked on the task of producing a hymnal whose tunes would be drawn from the work of European classical composers such as Haydn and Mozart. Mason had great difficulty in finding a publisher for this work. Ultimately, it was published (1822) by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, which was one of the earliest American organizations devoted to classical music. Mason's hymnal turned out to be a great success. The work was at first published anonymously—Mason felt that his main career was as a banker, and he hoped not to damage his career prospects.

In 1827, Mason moved to Boston, where he continued his banking career for some time but also became music director for three churches including the Hanover Street whose pastor was the famous Lyman Beecher, in a six-month rotation. Mason became an important figure on the Boston musical scene: He served as president of the Handel and Haydn Society, taught music in the public schools, was co-founder of the Boston Academy of Music (1833), and in 1838 was appointed music superintendent for the Boston school system. In the 1830s, Mason set to music the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb". In 1845 political machinations in the Boston school committee led to the termination of his services.

In 1851, at the age of 59, Mason retired from Boston musical activity and moved to New York City where his sons, Daniel and Lowell, Jr. had a music business. On December 20, 1851 he set sail to Europe. During his tour of Europe in 1852 he developed a great interest and enthusiasm for congregational singing, especially that in the German churches of Nicolaikirche in Leipzig and the Kreuzkirche in Dresden.

Following his return to New York City he accepted the position as music director in 1853 for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church which had just completed construction of a new church edifice on Nineteenth Street. He immediately disbanded its choir and orchestra and installed an organ with his son, William, serving as organist. During his tenure, which lasted until 1860, he developed congregational singing to the point where the church was known has having the finest congregational singing in the city. In 1859 Mason, along with Edwards A. Parks and Austin Phelps published The Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book.

In 1860 he retired to his estate in Orange, New Jersey, where he remained active in the Congregational Church there. He remained an important and influential figure throughout his life. He died on his estate he had purchased in 1872 - an old man, and full of days (Job 41:17).

Some modern scholars, including the writers in The New Grove Dictionary of Music, give Mason a terrible asssessment. Mason was strongly foccused on European classical music, and took it to be a model for what Americans should be singing and performing. The famous hymn and Christmas carol Joy to the World is a good example: it is debated whether the tune of this hymn is by George Frideric Handel or by Mason himself, but it certainly sounds inspired by European classical music.

Mason is given credit for popularizing European classical music in a region where it was seldom performed, and since his day the United States has been firmly part of the global region in which such music is cultivated.

Where scholars sometimes denigrate Mason's work concerns one result of his introduction of European models for American hymnody: it choked off a flourishing and participatory native tradition of church music which was already producing outstanding compositions from composers such as William Billings. Mason and his colleagues (notably his brother Timothy Mason) did their best to characterize this music as backwoods material, "unscientific" and unworthy of the attention of modern Americans, and they propagated their views very effectively with a new form of singing school, set up to replace the old singing schools dating from colonial times.

In comparison with the earlier forms of American sacred music, the music that Mason and his colleagues propagated would be considered by many musicians to be rhythmically more homogeneous and harmonically less forceful. By emphasizing the soprano line, it also made the other choral parts less interesting to sing. Lastly, the new music generally required the support of an organ, which, perhaps only incidentally, was a Mason family business.

The earlier tradition retreated to the inland rural South, where it resisted efforts at conversion, surviving in the form of (for example) Sacred Harp music, a genre that in modern times has actually grown in popularity as Americans in all regions rediscover the vigor of pre-Lowell Mason American sacred music.

The final part of his career at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church probably had the most enduring impact on American church music. Mason made the dramatic shift personally from viewing church congregations as utterly devoid of any propensity for singing to one in which he vigorously promoted congregational singing and eliminated all professional musicians save the organist.

Although Presbyterians were slow in their acceptance of this radical change, congregational singing, in time, became the accepted standard in all denominations to one extent or another, with the Roman Catholic Church being the last holdout until the latter decades of the 20th Century. It is only within recent years with the advent of Contemporary Christian Music in Pentecostal and other Evangelical churches that church music is now making a broad shift back from congregational singing to music led by "worship teams" and "praise teams."

Lowell Mason was the father of Henry Mason (the founder of the Mason and Hamlin firm).

Mary Had a Little Lamb is a nursery rhyme of 19th-century American origin.

Mary had a little lamb ,
Her fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.
He followed her to school one day;
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play;
To see a lamb at school.
"Why does the lamb love Mary so?"
The eager children cry;
"Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,"
The teacher did reply.

[The Redstone School, now in Sudbury, Massachusetts, is believed to be the schoolhouse mentioned in the nursery rhyme]

The nursery rhyme was first published as an original poem by Sarah Josepha Hale on May 24, 1830, and was inspired by an actual incident.

As a girl, Mary Sawyer (later Mrs. Mary Tyler) kept a pet lamb, which she took to school one day at the suggestion of her brother. A commotion naturally ensued. Mary recalled:

[Inside the schoolhouse]

"Visiting school that morning was a young man by the name of John Roulstone, a nephew of the Reverend Lemuel Capen, who was then settled in Sterling. It was the custom then for students to prepare for college with ministers, and for this purpose Mr. Roulstone was studying with his uncle. The young man was very much pleased with the incident of the lamb; and the next day he rode across the fields on horseback to the little old schoolhouse and handed me a slip of paper which had written upon it the three original stanzas of the poem..."

There are two competing theories on the origin of this poem. One holds that Roulstone wrote the first four lines and that the final twelve lines, more moralistic and much less childlike than the first, were composed by Sarah Josepha Hale; the other is that Hale was responsible for the entire poem.

Mary Sawyer's house, located in Sterling, Massachusetts, was destroyed by arson on August 12, 2007.

A statue representing Mary's Little Lamb stands in the town center. The Redstone School, which was built in 1798, was purchased by Henry Ford and relocated to Sudbury, Massachusetts. It now sits on the grounds of Longfellow's Wayside Inn.

In the 1830's, Lowell Mason set the nursery rhyme to a melody written by Mozart, adding repetition in the verses:

Mary had a little lamb,
little lamb, little lamb,
Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.

And everywhere that Mary went,
Mary went, Mary went,
and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day
school one day, school one day,
It followed her to school one day, which was against the rules.

It made the children laugh and play,
laugh and play, laugh and play,
it made the children laugh and play to see a lamb at school.

And so the teacher turned it out,
turned it out, turned it out,
And so the teacher turned it out, but still it lingered near,

And waited patiently about,
patiently about, patiently about,
And waited patiently about till Mary did appear.

"Why does the lamb love Mary so?"
Love Mary so? Love Mary so?
"Why does the lamb love Mary so," the eager children cry.

"Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know."
The lamb, you know, the lamb, you know,
"Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know," the teacher did reply.

Thomas Edison recited the first stanza of this poem to test his invention of the phonograph in 1877, making this the second audio recording to be successfully made and played back.

In 1923, Edison's friend Henry Ford moved a building to the grounds of the Wayside Inn from Sterling, Massachusetts, which he believed was the original schoolhouse mentioned in this poem.

Chubby Checker's first hit, The Class, featured vocal impressions of the song as it would be performed by Elvis Presley, the Chipmunks, Cozy Cole, and his own near-namesake, Fats Domino.

Paul McCartney and Wings released a version of the song, with a new melody by McCartney, as a single in 1972.

British Glam-rock band Slade used a reference to this rhyme on their song "Did yer mama ever tell ya."

The nu-metal band, Korn, used this rhyme in their song "Shoots and Ladders" which talks about the supposed sinister meaning behind nursery rhymes.

Blues artist Buddy Guy combined it with elements from other nursery school rhymes. This version of the song was later covered by fellow bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan.

The alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins included a variation of this nursery rhyme in their song X.Y.U. from their album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, with the lines "Mary had a little lamb/Her face was white as snow/And everywhere that Mary went/I was sure to go/Now Mary's got a problem/And Mary's not a stupid girl/Mary's got some deep shit/Mary does not forget..."

Mark Alburger's Mary Variations (1985) transform the tune into a Chinese pentatonic scale, an Indian raga, the Dies Irae, a medieval isorhythm, Sumer Is Icumen In, and the music of Claudio Monteverdi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Scott Joplin, Igor Stravinsky, 12-bar blues, Sergei Prokofiev, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Terry Riley, Sting, and John Barry.

The house-rap group SNAP recorded in the 1990s a song called "Mary Had a Little Boy."

In late 2006, rock group Evanescence played with the nursery rhyme in their song "Lose Control," with the lyrics "Mary had a lamb/His eyes black as coal/If we play very quiet, my lamb/Mary never has to know."

In the film Horse Feathers, Chico Marx plays a lively piano number called "Collegiate", which he interlaces with riffs from "Dixie" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb."