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Restored to life

Music historian finds treasure, breathes new life into forgotten tunes

  • AMERICAN HARMONY, a chorus of musical re-enactors, present songs that stirred the soul of early America. Friday, 7 p.m. Mary Lyon Church, Upper Street, Buckland Center. The program includes some of the most popular sacred and secular songs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Directed by music historian Nym Cooke, author of a new book and CD coming out this fall titled “American Harmony.” Pie social will follow. $6 adults, $3 students 12 and under. Benefit for the Buckland Historical Society.<br/>

Back in the days before Google and digitized archives, a Harvard undergrad was doing research the old-fashioned way, pulling down tomes of music from tall library shelves that had likely remained undisturbed for 150 years. The music was written for four parts. The tenor line had the melody. Humming softly so as not to disturb others, he would sight-sing countless tunes and, in the process, discover a calling that would shape his future and help revive an exuberant early American musical tradition.

That young academic was Nym Cooke of New Braintree and today he is the foremost authority on early New England sacred music and the author of a forthcoming scholarly collection of tunes with critical commentary, “American Harmony,” which will be published next year by David R. Godine.

“One of the most sharply exciting things about research is finding things you had no idea were there because, of course, you don’t have any idea what’s there if you’re working in a field which is largely unexplored, which I was doing back in the 1970s,” said Cooke, 62, while in Northfield for a rehearsal of his new group, American Harmony. A musical dynamo, Cooke conducts rehearsals with an infectious energy, even playing the piano with his back to the keyboard as he cues in the various parts.

The chorus will present its first concert on Saturday, Nov. 10, at the historic First Parish Church at the corner of Main Street and Parker Avenue in Northfield. Costuming by Marie Ferre of Northfield and the authentic interior of the early 19th-century First Parish church will help establish the ambience of this concert. The event is a benefit for the historic preservation of the building.

“These books for me are like gold mines!” says Cooke. “They’re treasure repositories: You don’t know what you’re going to find in them when you first approach them, but you’ll come to the bottom of a page and there, printed in some fading type, is this wonderful melody that just lifts you up and transports you!”

Lost and found

The word “harmony” is used in the titles of many tunebooks of early America. For example, there were “Pennsylvania Harmony,” “Christian Harmony” and 19th-century New England composer Timothy Swan’s own tunebook, “New England Harmony.” That was, in fact, the working title of Cooke’s planned book of early American sacred music until he discovered an even wider musical heritage that had been elbowed out of 19th-century New England as European masters such as Handel, Haydn and their kin came into vogue.

“The music of Swan and his contemporaries went west and south,” explains Cooke, “first to Kentucky and Tennessee and Pennsylvania and then into the deep south: Georgia, the Carolinas and Alabama. The style flourished down there in the 19th century after it really ceased to be a viable musical style up here.

“But it didn’t stop there. The style continued to fascinate composers in the South. In fact, we’re going to do one piece by Alfred Marcus Cagle called ‘Soar Away,’ written in the early 20th century.

“Then, with the bicentennial in the 1970s, the music started coming back east and up north and New Englanders started taking an interest in it again. New singing groups formed, singing pretty much the way people had been singing in the south for over a 100 years.

“So you had this real flowering of the music again in New England in the late 20th century and we’ll be singing a couple of pieces from that later development, too.”

Harmony, American style

“This is a very bony, lean style of writing,” Cooke says. “When I say bony, I mean that the chords — what you hear when all the voices are singing, what you hear when all the notes are stacked up — are not full, rich chords such as we’re used to hearing in Romantic and early-20th-century music. There are a lot of ‘open’ chords, bare fifths and octaves without the third in them.

“It’s also a style that is composed ‘successively,’ rather than ‘simultaneously.’”

To understand the difference requires a brief history lesson in the European tradition of “common practice harmony.” Common practice harmony, which developed most fully in the Baroque and Classical periods — the era of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn — is a very set harmonic system with certain rules about how one chord moves to another. It’s oriented toward harmony because all these composers were writing at keyboards.

“At a keyboard,” explains Cooke, “you can sit down and plunk out four or six notes at once, and so people were thinking chordally and there’s a strong sense of harmonic direction — of this chord leading to that chord.

“Early New Englanders had very little notion of that.

“They didn’t have keyboards and they fumbled their way to a homegrown style of composing, where they thought melodically.

“So when I’m talking about ‘successive’ composition, I’m talking about someone writing an entire melody first — they’re writing for the tenor because the tenor part has the melody — and then composing an entire bass part for the basses to sing (checking it from time to time to make sure that it’s fitting with the tenor part), and then writing an entire soprano part, as a kind of descant over the melody, but, again, thinking very melodically. And even the final alto, or, as they put it, counter, part is thought of very much in melodic terms.

“So all of these parts are handed out to the singers … ‘Here’s your part, here’s your part,’ and so on, and then people sang — and you hear very interesting things happening harmonically because they haven’t checked it all out on a keyboard. Everyone’s singing with the natural connections that voices make from one note into another and on to the next. They don’t worry about those occasional rubs of harmony.

“And that’s how the music’s written and you get these wonderful, sometimes crazy moments when the voices are crashing and colliding. But if you think of it in terms of the linear flow of each voice, it’s just fine!”

A brief history of church music
in New England

Church structure in early New England was congregational, consisting of worshippers who showed up every Sabbath day to hear the word of the Lord as interpreted by a minister and to contemplate the great spiritual issues. At first, the texts that were sung were taken exclusively from the book of psalms. That served the New England churches for a while.

“But then,” Cooke explains, “you get folks like Isaac Watts, an English nonconformist minister, which means he’s of the common people’s congregational church — and Watts starts writing his own hymns — brand new religious poems not based on the Biblical psalms — and others do, too. What’s wonderful about Watts is the way his hymns bring concrete imagery to spiritual issues. People just responded to that tremendously and Watts’ psalms and hymns were the most popular poems in 18th-century America. If a household had only two books, they’d be the Bible and Watts — Watts’ book being psalms and hymns combined.

“By the 1720s, the singing in New England congregational churches had degenerated tremendously because there was very little musical literacy,” explains Cooke. “People had other things on their minds — practical matters — and they didn’t think of music much. Then, in the early 1720s, a group of Boston ministers — Cotton Mather and Thomas Symmes and Thomas Walter and others — started to speak out in their sermons against the state of musical worship and they called for improvement. They said, ‘What if we got our young people together a couple of times a week and taught them the rudiments of music?’ And so the singing school was born in the 1720s in Boston.

“And young people loved it! They started agitating to sing more and more pieces and to sit together in the meetinghouse. They didn’t want to just learn how to sing and then go back and sit with their boring old parents in the box pews and help the singing from there. That was the ministers’ idea; but the young singers said, ‘Hey, we want to sit together.’ And, unbelievably, in the 1760s, the Congregational churches started to let them do just that. And there you have a fundamental shift in how people are worshipping. There were a lot of protests against this from the older folks. They started saying, ‘This is becoming theater now, and after this comes popery!’

“That didn’t happen, but certainly the singing school gave rise to the New England village choir. And the young singers started asking their singing masters to write them new songs and that’s where this music came from.”

Soaring to worlds on high

In this milieu, life was fragile, death ever-present and immortality beckoned from beyond the grave:

“O let this feeble body fail, and let it faint or die; My soul shall quit this mournful vale, and soar to worlds on high.”

— “Hallelujah,”
by William Walker

e_SDLqDeath is present in all of our lives,” Cooke says. “In early New England, death was even more present. You had diseases like tuberculosis, which raged uncontrolled. In the burying grounds in New England, you sometimes see these lines of little gravestones — as many as 10 or 12 sometimes — and it’s a whole family wiped out by TB or some disease like that within the space of a year.

“But people were more accepting, I think, they had to be much more accepting of death. You went on from this world of woes, if you were a good Christian, to that world of glory beyond, to sit with God and sing his praises with his angels.

“So there is that awareness of mortality and also that embracing of death: ‘Come, sweet solace of death and relieve me of these worldly ills.’”

“Another theme,” says Cooke, “is the beauties of the natural world. One of the songs this chorus is rehearsing is “Song of Praise,” by Elijah West, who was a Vermont composer. The Vermont frontier was hard, of course, but imagine also how beautiful it was to wake up on a clear morning in, say, 1798 in Vermont, and look across at the hills! So they wrote about the beauties of God’s world: “With songs and honors sounding loud, Praise ye the sovereign Lord!”

Northfield discovery

Discoveries are still being made in the field of early American music.

One serendipitous find landed in Cooke’s hands at a rehearsal for a concert in Northfield’s First Parish in 2010. A limp, disintegrating music manuscript had been uncovered among papers collected by the late amateur historian Rosa Johnston of Northfield. Marie Ferre, Joanne Gardner and Joel Fowler, all of Northfield, brought it to show Cooke.

“It was floppy because it wasn’t in any kind of a solid binding,” recalls Cooke. “It was a large, oblong item and many of the pages were gone, or only partially present. It was written in ink and it was clearly a couple of hundred years old. Here we were, rehearsing for Northfield’s own Timothy Swan Day, and the week before the concert, this manuscript turns up!

“I thought, ‘For heaven’s sake, this is amazing!’ because it had several of Timothy Swan’s secular duets. There was just the possibility that it had been compiled by him and copied by him. I’m not so sure of that anymore; but at any rate, it was a handwritten music manuscript from Timothy Swan’s time.

“I said to them, ‘You really should get this to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. They are the pre-eminent repository for early American manuscripts and printed items. They have a staff that will keep this unique source in as good shape as possible.’ They finally agreed and so we made a pilgrimage to AAS in Worcester and handed it over. They were delighted to get it. So that was a lovely find!”

The search goes on

There are more discoveries to be made, says Cooke. “In fact, I’ll give you a quick anecdote: One of the finest composers of all of Swan’s generation is a man who wrote a piece called ‘Crucifixion.’ It was one of about 12 pieces printed by a Connecticut composer, Asahel Benham, in the 1790s and Benham ascribed all of those pieces to ‘M. Kyes.’ So what was the first name — Moses? Michael? We didn’t know.

“What was interesting was that, in Benham’s index of tunes and composers, this ‘Kyes’ was the only one who had a first initial.

“Well, over the years, a few other tunes surfaced that seemed to be in very much the same style as this guy and some of them were attributed to McKyes. That was interesting!

“And then, just this year, a young fellow in England, Fynnian Titford-Mock, came across a Canadian book that was online — had been digitized — a tunebook by Mark Burnham called ‘The Colonial Harmonist,” Ontario 1832, much later than the M. Kyes’ pieces of Benham, which were published in 1790, 1792 and 1798. This is 1832, Canada, and there were a number of pieces in that book attributed to “B. McKyes’ and the pieces are very similar in style to M. Kyes’s pieces. And then, Fynn went on to discover this guy’s name: He found a friend of Mark Burnham who was named Barnabas McKyes, whose dates fitted. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1765, so that would make him 25 years old when Benham first published the M. Kyes pieces, and so we think it’s all one and the same person!

“It’s wonderful to know now that probably the composer of this wonderful tune, ‘Crucifixion,’ which American Harmony will eventually sing, was probably Barnabas McKyes, an immigrant to Canada in the 1800s.

“So these kinds of discoveries are still being made!”

“American Harmony”: The book

Cooke’s forthcoming book, “American Harmony,” started off as “Lexington Harmony” some 35 years ago.

“I was 25 in 1975 when I got a National Endowment for the Humanities Youth grant to work on it, and I never finished it. Other things took over — graduate school, making a family and all that — and it just fell by the wayside. Three years ago, I was out for a walk and I was singing one of these tunes to myself and I thought, ‘I’m ready to do it now.’

“When I had first proposed the book, I had taken it to a wonderful publisher by the name of David Godine. He’s right in Boston, he’s one of the most highly regarded publishers on the East Coast and a friend of mine said, ‘Go on, just talk to Godine. This is the kind of thing he might like.’ David Godine’s office was then in one of those huge brownstone buildings around Newbury Street and Commonwealth Avenue. I went up to his office and I said, ‘Mr. Godine, I’ve made a little mockup of a chapter (in fact, the Timothy Swan chapter because I had just finished my undergraduate thesis on Swan) and here’s what I propose to do.’

“And he said something like, ‘Hey, I like the look of it, kid — you finish it up and we’ll publish it!’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!”

Fast forward 34 years to the spring of 2009:

“I was on WGBH radio on a program called Classical Connections. They asked me to do two five-minute slots, one on William Billings and one on Timothy Swan and after I finished what I had to say, the host said, ‘Nym Cooke has a book in the works of this music.’

“Two days later, I was in my classroom at Eagle Hill School in Hardwick, where I teach, and a call came for me. I don’t like being bothered while I’m teaching and I barked, ‘Yeah, what is it?’ And a voice said, ‘This is David Godine. I heard your spot on the radio and I’m glad you’re back on the book. If you’re still interested, I’d still like to publish it!’

“This was 34 years after he had first heard about it. So since then I’ve finished it up. It’s going to be a tremendously large book and I’m thrilled with it.

“The name of the book has gone from ‘Lexington Harmony’ to ‘New England Harmony’ to ‘American Harmony.’ It’s mainly music — 173 pieces, the cream of the crop — but I’ve written an introduction and biographies of all the composers, which include pretty much all the information there is on the early New Englanders, and then I’ve culled information from wonderful sources like David Warren Steel’s book on ‘The Sacred Harp and Its Composers’ that came out two years ago.

“So there’s a huge music section, and then critical commentary, because it’s a scholarly edition, and all kinds of indices and a bibliography. So it’s a very thoroughly documented anthology.

“And I thought it would be wonderful to introduce the book and its music to New England audiences with a chorus, just taking the music around and singing it. The chorus will be singing a lot of pieces for the first time in 200 years, like ‘Judgment’ by Benjamin Leslie; I’m not sure if people even dared to sing that one back in Leslie’s time. It’s a pretty wild — and pretty amazing — piece.”

A ghostly visitor

Although Cooke denies channeling the spirits of the past as he conducts their music, he does carry with him the memory of a ghostly visitor who came to him in a dream some 35 years ago. Steeped in his research, Cooke fell asleep one night and encountered none other than Vermont composer Justin Morgan (1747-1798). “I got to meet him as an old man — older, in fact, than he ever became in life — and he sang for me one of his songs, a lament he wrote after his wife died, called ‘Despair.’ It begins, ‘Oh! Now Amanda’s dead and gone.’

“I remember the old man’s mouth quavering as he went, ‘Oh-oh-o-o,’ and he’s singing this for me!”

The verse continues, “I’ll seek to live unseen, unknown, Oh! Unlamented let me die; Steal from the world, And not a stone tell where I lie.”

Chris Harris has worked at The Recorder since 2004 and is a member of the choral group American Harmony. She is editor of Valley Kids, Healthy Life, the Valley Guides, Going Green, and the Recorder’s supplements. She can be reached at charris@recorder.com or at
413-772-0261, ext. 265.

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261,
ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.

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