The Phillips Library contains a fascinating collection of manuscripts documenting the musical activities and tastes of local people. In this collection we can see the development of local repertories as well as the changing styles in music and dance from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. We can listen in on public and private musical entertainments.
The first European settlers in the Salem area sang hymns praising their God, in a choral style developed in Europe, using three or more “parts” – the familiar soprano, alto tenor, and bass voices commonly used today. They were soon developing this repertory, writing hymns that expressed their own beliefs and experiences. By the eighteenth century, New England boasted many composers, such as William Billings, whose hymns were reworked in the Shape Note style and republished in the collection now known as the Sacred Harp. During the eighteenth century, singing schools flourished as occasions for entertainment as well as improving the quality of church service music.
We also know from early explorers’ accounts that dance music was an entertainment of ships’ crews. A member of Martin Pring’s 1603 expedition along the coast of New England so impressed local Native Americans with his gittern playing that they showered him with gifts. [Henry Burrage,. 1906. Early English and French Voyages, Chiefly from Hakluyt, 1534-1608. Original Narratives of Early American History, J. Jameson (Ed.). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 347]. Country Dancing, later named Contra Dancing, was a popular obsession in England, driving the publication of music collections by Playford and others from the seventeenth century. These dances consisted of “sets” of “figures” danced to jigs, reels, hornpipes, marches, and minuets. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americans followed many of the dance trends in Europe, but also developed their own repertories. At a dance, the “caller” directed dancers with instructions such as “Partners balance and turn; ladies chain.”
The musicians required to accompany dancing included fifes, flutes, fiddles, clarinets, and keyboard instruments; basically those still used in American Old Time music. Musicians jotted down tunes in music note books or on any scrap of paper. Many of these books were pocket sized, and also served for memoranda.
We can also learn about the instruments they played from fingering charts and other instructions in the manuscripts.Chamber music was a popular private entertainment for musicians: duets, trios, divertimenti, and sonatas with keyboard could accommodate whatever instruments were available. Most of the manuscripts do not specify instrumentation. The repertory draws from well-known composers in Europe such as Handel, Stamitz, Cherubini, and Weber.Learning to play the keyboard and sing was a requirement for admission to the best social circles in America, as it had been for courtiers and the developing middle classes in Europe. The manuscripts include note books of keyboard and singing lessons. They contain unaccompanied songs, which might have been performed with some accompaniment, and songs with fully realized keyboard accompaniments. The music notation itself gives clues about the refinement of the people who made it.
Changing musical tastes are especially apparent in the songs, which range in content from sentimental to political, and include transcriptions of traditional airs, popular music hall numbers, and opera airs. We also find songs and works for keyboard by local composers. The mid-nineteenth century fashion for singing “glees” is also well represented: these were vocal trios, quartets, and quintets from which the modern “Barbershop” style is descended.
Several of the manuscripts contain notations associating them with Harvard College, providing a glimpse of the social life its students enjoyed.
For more information about these and related items see the finding aid for MSS 475 Early Music Collection.