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The Music Of The Puritans

July 2024
9min read

A cultivated and subtle musical art form nourished the Puritans in the wilderness

ON THE DAY they left Leyclen for America, so one of the Pilgrims reported, “We refreshed ourselves, after tears, with singing of psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts as well as with the voice, there being many of our congregation very expert in music; and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears heard.” Sailing the open ocean, the Puritans set their night watches with a psalm, and sang loud of God’s mercy in the morning. Tradition has allowed the Puritans very little of human understanding or aesthetic cheer. Bony-fingered bigots, incapable of, and spiteful against, the pleasures and the arts—theirs is not an inviting myth. In their music they are revealed in braver, more Haltering lights and colors: cultivated amateurs, knowledgeable in an exquisite Sixteenth-Century art; singers, in congregation, of some of the most exhilarating song ever to spring from an embattled folk. With this song Huguenot martyrs, lowered and lifted over slow flames, drowned out the Latin chants of their tormentors. In the New World the mirthful and exultant Puritans—men who had, as they said, “consolations strong enough to hold up their heads above water when the waves rise highest and the raging billows make the greatest noise”—raised the chorus.

The congregational song of the Sixteenth and early Seventeenth centuries was the sublimest there has ever been. The thrill, in religious exaltation, of singing familiar yet new and great music, with masses of one’s fellows, gave the triumphal cry of a liberated faith. Man threw off his shackles, and he sang. Not only in chorus, or in extremis of love and need, but every day, everywhere a tune was struck up, the psalms sounded. Here and in Europe men hummed them in the street or as they invited their souls in country solitudes. To the “temper’d soll tunings” of lute and viol, ladies murmured them to their lovers.


Rabbinical tradition has it that the harp of David hung above his bed at night, that the night winds sang through the strings, and that David spoke his inmost thoughts to the strains. In the Fourth Century St. Ambrose remarked of these night thoughts of David: “This is the peculiarity of the psalter, that everyone can use its words as if they were completely and individually his own.”

When the light of the Italian Renaissance beamed out over Europe the appeal of the psalms took on a new luster. Man, with what he could sense of himself and his sensible world, was the inspiration for thought and art. What more natural, in this quest for the personal, than to turn with redoubled passion to the Book of Psalms, the very archetype of personal poetry? Before the song of David became the battle cry of the Reformation, it was the darling of the Renaissance.

The song versions of the psalms, which were to be sung on our wild shores by Pilgrims and Puritans, first sounded in the freethinking, Italianate court of Marguerite of Navarre. Clément Marot, poet of rondeaux and epigrams, used the meters and even the phrases of his love lyrics for his sanctes chansonnettes, adapting them to the popular tunes of the day. The courts of France smiled with delight, and members of the king’s household each had a favorite. Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II, sang the De Profundis to the tune of “Baisez-moi donc, beau sire.”

Adapted by Calvin for his psalters, Marot’s verses had wide currency among English Protestants, as did the tunes that went with them. This music voiced most eloquently that great changing of European man which created the Reformation. As he turned from the soaring cathedrals with their mysterious interior shadows and glimmering hall-lights, that excited his imagination, to the splendid Renaissance pile with its sun-soaked halls and logical proportions, that satisfied his physical eye, so he turned from vaulting, manyvoiced music, with its unsatisfying scales, its feeling of limitlessness and incompleteness, that left him planing between earth and heaven, to Italian song which would express his human emotions with conviction and finality.

When the American Puritan Thomas Hooker said “the mind and understanding toucheth the Lord directly”; when Calvin insisted on unisonous singing with one note to a syllable, so that no word could possibly get lost, both men were expressing the same historymaking impulse that was putting Italian composers diligently to work to give the human word convincing expression, to render it in music as it might spring spontaneously from a man’s lips. Some of the psalm melodies, harking back to another age, are modal, arhythmical, illusive; some, very much of their own time, and beyond, are diatonic, unequivocal, marching home to a foregone conclusion. Some are most beautiful in delicate polyphonic settings, some more magnificent thundered out in majestic unison.

The Pilgrims brought with them two books of psalms. One, an English translation made especially for the Separatists by the Puritan Hebrew scholar Henry Ainsworth, was used for public worship. In this the melodies appear unaccompanied and unadorned. William Brewster also brought The Psalmes of David in Meter to be sung and played upon the lute, orpharyon, citterne, or base violl for private entertainment. Here the psalms appear like Elizabethan “ayres,” the lovely evanescent meeting between manyvoiced and solo song. The composer was Richard Allison, a protagonist of the brilliant English Sixteenth-Century lute school. That such a book, with all its implications of skill and leisure, should have been brought to “this most howling wilderness” and its mud hovels is a touching proof of civilized man’s faith.

Brewster’s library contained other tokens of the Pilgrim’s cheerful tastes—lyric verse, the gaudy tragedy of Messalina, libretti of pageants, a Golden Garland of Princely Pleasures and Delicate Delights. Similar song books continued to be imported— Jovial Garlands, Academies of Compliments, Crown Garlands of Golden Roses. Some of the ballads in these “garlands” were new, others almost as old as their tunes. “A Lamentable Song of the Death of King Leir and His Three Daughters” was probably one of Shakespeare’s sources. In another of these ballads Puritans sang of a Fifteenth-Century Duchess of Gloucester, like the “Queen of Egypt, with her pomp and glory,” who called up the Devil to avenge the murder of her husband.

The end of the great Puritan exodus, in the 1640's, coincided with the eclipse of English music. In America the first wave of powerful, cultivated men was replaced by weaker, more fanatical ones. The prime forces of English Puritanism were engaged at home, and immigration lapsed; there were no cities or courts here that could attract professionals. Instruments were disallowed at meeting; training was shirked, and song itself was pushed into the background by the swelling virtuosity of the Puritan sermon.

To aid congregations in these times of waning skill the New Englanders imported from old England the pernicious habit of “lining out.” The clerk, or reader, at meeting would sing out each line of the psalm separately, and then the public would repeat alter him, so that everything was sung twice, the meaning woefully distorted by the pauses—“The Lord will come and He will not/ Keep silence but speak out”—and a psalm of any length became unbearably tedious.

The leaders were themselves far from infallible. Judge Samuel Sewall complains fretfully and frequently of his difficulties as precentor: “I tried to set Low-Dutch Tune and failed. Tried again and fell into the tune of the 199th Psalm. … In the morning I set York Tune and in the second going over the gallery carried it irresistibly to St. David’s, which discouraged me very much.”

In 1698 the ninth edition of the Bay Psalm Book presented New England with the first music printed in the colonies. Ugly little book, showing in every page the sad fall of Puritan song! Psalm translations made in rugged defiance of all poetic or musical cadence, and a miserable thirteen tunes, clumsily printed, with the names of the notes indicated by initial below the staffs, for the ease of the illiterate.


THE BEGINNING of the Eighteenth Century brought a new spirit into Protestant music on both sides of the Atlantic. The battle for religious freedom had been won; Englishmen and colonials basked in the glories of Commerce and Reason. Who would now thrill to songs of bloody, albeit God-guided, battles for survival? Isaac Watts, the English Nonconformist parson who gave new religious song to an eager public, expressed the general turning away from Old Testament rigors: “Our consciences are affrighted … our souls are shocked on a sudden, and our spirits ruffled before we have time to reflect that this may be sung only as a history of ancient saints.” Watts was the creator of the English hymn, a poem springing from scripture, but so emancipated from the text, and in the case of the Old Testament so “gospelized,” that even the ancient saints now sang like contemporary English Christians. Together with his other Biblical sources, from which Watts gleaned the famous “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” and “When I survey the wondrous cross,” the psalms were transformed, with suitable omissions, into Eighteenth-Century hymns. Sweet, sedative afterthoughts he bestowed upon the agonies and bitterness of David, and God’s kingdom became the English-speaking world: “Shine, mighty God, on Britain shine … God the Redeemer scatters round/ His choicest favors here … He hath not thus reveal’d His word/ To every land: praise ye the Lord.”

The music to go with this new poetry flourished and trilled to match the verse—bright, smooth, and curly, like ormolu. As in earlier enthusiasms, many of the tunes were based on popular secular music: flowery airs from Germany or English ballad opera.

The new Zeitgeist, which was to spark the first native American music, began by stirring up grotesque confusion in New England. The old clumsy lining out, plus a sudden, noisy, childish attempt at florid style, produced, according to a contemporary comment, “something so hideous and disorderly as is beyond expression bad.” Help was at hand, but not to be administered without a struggle.

Enlightened churchmen drew up their forces of persuasion, among them two members of the great Cotton and Mather families, the Reverend John Tufts, and the Reverend Thomas Walter, who both published books of musical instruction. Walter also used his pulpit, offering his congregation the incentive that “the church of angels, who always rejoice in the good improvements of the church on earth, conceive no small delight and satisfaction in the essays of the children of men to imitate their hallelujahs. … They look upon us with honor and respect. …”

The forces of darkness were unmoved. “Elder and angry people,” to whom learning the skill of music was synonymous with devil worship, blatted out their ignorance, laziness, and superstition in a last-ditch battle. Their accusations were listed in a contemporary pamphlet: “It is a New Way … it gives disturbance, roils and exasperates men’s spirits … the names given to the notes are bawdy, yea blasphemous … their good fathers that were strangers to it are got to Heaven without it. And therefore what need for all this adoo and pudder for nothing? … a contrivance to get money … they spend too much time about learning … tarry out a nights disorderly.”

In individual congregations the fight was carried on hand to hand. Sometimes the air in a meetinghouse was rent while one faction tried to sing the psalm straight through in the more modern fashion, and the other, led by stentorian lining-out, strove to shout them down in the old way. We hear from the New England Courant of 1723 how a certain minister suspended seven or eight of the church for persisting in the new method. The same divine later felt himself obliged to conduct his services at home rather than suffer the singers who had taken over in his church. Finally his little crew of followers declared for the Church of England and sent for a missionary.

The new spirit was at last victorious. Able professionals were attracted from abroad by increasing prosperity; public concerts were staged—the first on record in the colonies took place in Boston in 1731; singing schools and musical societies flourished. To supply them, music publishing started in a small but active way. The happiness and pride of accomplishment that went into these books, the gayness of the tunes chosen, communicate themselves as soon as one opens the pages, and the heart warms to this hopeful adolescence of American musical life.


Into this burgeoning musical world William Billings, America’s first important composer, was born, in Boston in 1746. He was blind in one eye, had a withered arm, and legs of different lengths. When his widowed mother died she left to her three sons one great and six small chairs, one old broken desk, one small looking glass—a total value of £5 3 s. 6d . William was apprenticed to a tanner. Although he may have been able to scratch up a music teacher or two, he was largely self-taught. He had a will to be heard, a robust, engaging nature, and genius.

In 1770 he published The New England Psalm Singer. It contained 125 original tunes in parts; nothing vaguely comparable had ever been done here before. Its stars are “When Jesus Wept,” a canon in mazurka time, the then newly favored Polish rhythm which Billings used very frequently and with surprising, poignant effect; and the hymn “Chester,” which became the most popular marching song of the Revolution. Billings was very conscious of himself as a patriot and as a New Englander: in “Chester” he hailed “New England’s God” and he rearranged scripture to mourn for Boston during the British siege:


By the rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept

When we remember’d thee, O Boston


If I forget thee

Yea if I do not remember thee

Then let my numbers cease to flow

His greatest successes were his “fuguing tunes,” choral pieces interspersed with short fugato passages, which Billings launched on their short, buoyant American career. As he says of his favorites: “More than twenty times as powerful as the old slow tunes. Each part striving for mastery and victory. The audience entertained and delighted, their minds surprisingly agitated and extremely fluctuated, sometimes declaring for one and sometimes for another. Now the solemn bass demands their attention; next the manly tenor; now the lofty counter; now the volatile treble. Now here, now there, now here again! O ecstatic! Rush on, you sons of harmony!”

Billings claimed to have exerted himself to the utmost to “preserve the modern air and manner,” yet in trying for an approximation of Handel’s choral fugues he groped back instead toward the counterpoint of an earlier age. The result has a special appeal today. Many contemporary composers have an aversion to ear-lulling diatonic scales, steady rhythms, “classic” harmony. Certainly he created in his fuguing tunes the first American musical art form. Banished into the hinterlands for generations by changing tastes, these compositions are now coming back into their own—appreciated by musicians, ready and able to give a much wider public high delight.

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