The Music Of The Puritans


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.