Excavating the MHS’s Musical Treasures

By Nym Cooke, NERFC fellow, choral conductor, independent scholar

I worked at the MHS for several weeks on a New England Regional Fellowship Consortium (NERFC) grant which is allowing me to inventory all the pre-1821 American materials containing sacred music, both printed and manuscript, in a number of New England libraries (next up: 27 different Harvard libraries, and the John Hay Library at Brown University).  My NERFC project is part of a larger enterprise, the creation of a detailed inventory of all sacred-music sources in a large number of repositories in the Northeast.  I’ve already inventoried the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, the Phillips Library of the Essex Institute, the Congregational Library and Archives, the Boston Athenaeum, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Watkinson Library at Trinity College, and a number of small-city and town historical societies.  I’m paying special attention to the unique contents of the sources I work with: variant issues of printed items, ownership and other inscriptions, and (especially) manuscript music.  Many hundreds of printed American tunebooks contain handwritten supplements of tunes and individual vocal parts, and I’m recording key information about every manuscript entry that I find.  My “union inventory” is already being converted into a searchable database, which I’ll host on the web.  Further, the inventory project–an attempt to look at absolutely everything that’s out there–will richly inform my next book, A Joyful Noise: Sacred Music in New England, 1620-1820.  Among other uses, the data from my inventory will illuminate the practice of manuscript music copying and the varieties of musical literacy in early America to an unprecedented extent.

As might be expected, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s holdings of early American sacred music are fabulously rich.  With the help of several MHS librarians, I unearthed 177 sacred-music sources produced in America and dated (or datable) to the period before 1821.  Most of these were printed oblong tunebooks or “tune pamphlets,” but there were also manuscript books and booklets, hymnals with printed tune supplements, musical periodicals, a Haydn oratorio in its first American printing, and a piece of sacred-texted sheet music.  My 72-page inventory describes all these sources in detail.  The MHS owns no fewer than five copies of William Billings’s remarkable tunebook The Singing Master’s Assistant (several eds., 1778-1781).  It also has a manuscript music booklet compiled by one Lucy Brooks; this small pamphlet, dated 1779 and 1784, contains 54 entries, 17 of them by Billings and are included (in identical versions) in The Singing Master’s Assistant.  This circumstance suggests strongly that Brooks owned a copy of the Billings book; she may even have attended one of the many singing schools taught by Billings.

One sacred music item in the Society’s collections–a printed tunebook with a large manuscript supplement–especially caught my attention.  This was a copy of the 4th edition of The Worcester Collection of Sacred Harmony (1792) that belonged to a 17-year-old named William Bowditch, the younger brother of mathematician and oceanic navigation pioneer Nathaniel Bowditch.  William’s name and the dates “January 25 1793” and “1798” may be found in the volume.  In another inscription (dated “Christmas 1889”), on a slip pasted inside the book’s front cover, Nathaniel’s son Henry Ingersoll Bowditch writes, in part, “This Book found among many others, old & dilapidated, which had lain unknown for over half a century, & had been in two ancient trunks without keys….  It was owned by Fathers brother William….  The book was terribly worn[;] I have partially repaired & cleaned of dust &c.  William was Fathers [well?] beloved – They were both fond of music & of mathematics.  I have little doubt that a little less than a century ago they sang together from it – ”  Will Bowditch was clearly a musical youth; he copied 55 of his favorite pieces onto leaves tied inside the book’s back cover (at least 25 of these may be found in Samuel Holyoke’s 1791 tunebook Harmonia Americana, suggesting, as in the case of Lucy Brooks and the Billings tunebook, that William may have attended a singing school taught by Holyoke), and he made changes or corrections to a number of The Worcester Collection‘s printed tunes.  William Bowditch died on an ocean voyage at Trinidad in 1799; he was 23 years old.

Here as elsewhere, it’s the human stories that these centuries-old sources tell (or touch on) that help make historical research so rewarding.  I’ve been fortunate to come across a number of these stories, and many more tiny glimpses into past lives, in my sacred music inventorying.  I invite anyone who’d like to know more about this project, or who has a collection of pre-1821 American sacred music to bring to my attention, to e-mail me at nymcooke@gmail.com.