Oh, for a Thousand Tunes: A bicentennial tribute to Lowell Mason (1792-1872)

Although the name Lowell Mason may be unfamiliar to many his hymn tunes are among the best known and best loved in our hymnals. It was Mason, for example, who composed the stately, reverent melody for "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and the majestic strains of "Joy to the World."

But Mason's contributions to American music go far beyond his hymn tunes and arrangements. Thanks to his energy and direction in making music part of the public school curriculum, many more people have been given the opportunity to learn the basics of singing and playing musical instruments.

The Singing School

Although psalm-singing was very important in the worship services of the Puritans, the Bay Psalm Book, probably the first published songbook in America (1640), contained only the words of the psalms. For each psalm tune, choices (a very limited number) were indicated metrically.

Since these psalm-singing Calvinists had no tunes in their psalters and sang unaccompanied, they needed a song leader to "line out" the tunes: the caller, typically the minister or a volunteer layperson, would sing each line, and the congregation would respond by imitating him.

Because of this system, congregational singing degenerated over the years to a level one Massachusetts minister described as "an horrid Medley of confused and disordered noises." Not surprisingly, numerous ministers and musicians became critical of the barbarous quality of singing that resulted from the crude "lining out" practices and began to form singing schools and singing societies.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, singing was frequently taught by an itinerant teacher to groups of adults who were talented and interested in learning to sing by reading notes rather than by rote, "lining out" methods. Music classes typically were held in homes, churches, and town halls in the evenings. The singing teacher traveled among several towns in a week's time and relied on the use of Psalm tunes and hymn tunes for instructional music.

Church Musician, Scholar, Leader

Into this scene, Lowell Mason was born in Medfield, Massachusetts. As a youth, he played several musical instruments, including organ, piano, cello, and clarinet. From his middle teenage years through his early twenties, Mason expressed his musical talents and interests by teaching singing schools and conducting church choirs, bands, and community choirs. He also was a highly reputed vocal and instrumental soloist in church and community.

When he was 26, Mason married Abigail Adams and in the years that followed became a very popular church music leader. His musical talents, charismatic personality, and deep spiritual desire to praise God appealed to people of all ages—including children. He dedicated himself to improving congregational singing, which he believed contributed to the spiritual unity of the body of believers.

During a trip to Europe, Mason was influenced by Johann B. Pestalozzi, who was developing innovative educational ideas and practices for orphaned children. Pestalozzi's principles of education included a strong emphasis on singing for all children, not just the talented few. Many of Pestalozzi's ideas are reflected in Mason's Manual of Instruction, which suggests principles that are applicable still today for contemporary church singing:

  • Teach children to sing before teaching them how to read notes.
  • Encourage active participation in the creation of musical sounds—before giving an explanation of the music.
  • Allow each child to progress at his or her own rate.
  • Use music to promote positive attitudes and feelings about self.

Mason began collecting and composing hymn tunes during the years he served as organist and choirmaster at the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia. Perhaps through his banking connections in England, he got ahold of William Gardner's Sacred Music, and through that collection introduced Americans to many tunes that have been in common use ever since, such as Haydn's LYONS ("O Worship the King"), ADESTE FPDELES ("O Come, All Ye Faithful"), and TALUS CANON ('All Praise to You, My God, This Night").

The Handel and Haydn Society in Boston agreed to publish Mason's first collection, which included many European tunes and others Mason arranged or composed himself. The collection was a great success, selling over fifty thousand copies in several editions. His popularity grew until eventually he left his post as a bank clerk in Savannah and moved back north to Boston, accepting the position of director of the newly established Boston Academy in 1832.

During Mason's long life he composed or arranged about 1600 hymn tunes, published in some eighty collections. His tunes are simple, direct, and uncomplicated, reflecting his interest in teaching children.

Founder of Public School Music

Perhaps Lowell Mason's landmark contribution was the introduction of vocal music as a regular part of the school curriculum in the Boston Public Schools. In 1836, Mason, with a group of prominent citizens, formally proposed to the school board that singing instruction become a regular part of the school curriculum. Singing, Mason told the board, is beneficial for developing moral character, for promoting personal happiness through faith and testimony, for healthful exercise of the lungs, and for teaching reading.

Although the school board supported and approved this proposal, the city council overlooked the necessity of making the music curriculum proposal legal and providing funds for its implementation. Again, Lowell Mason's strong spiritual belief in the importance of singing and praising God through music came through, and led him to offer to teach music in the Boston City Schools zvithout pay for one year.

On August 28,1838, the school board and city council officially adopted and funded music as a subject to be taught in the Boston Grammar Schools. Mason taught and supervised music there until 1841, when he resigned in order to spend his time composing and arranging tunes, and traveling to organize conventions for training teachers in the instruction of vocal music in church worship and school curricula.


Best Known Tunes

For an evening song service, read excerpts of this article and then sing some of the hymns with tunes composed by Lowell Mason. The Index of Composers in the back of any hymnal will provide many examples. A few of Ms most popular are listed below.

ANTTOCH ("Joy to the World")
[PH 40, PsH 337, RL 198, TH 195]

AZMON ("Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing")
[PH 466, PsH 501, RL 362-361, TH 164]

HAMBURG ("When I Survey the Wondrous Cross")
[PH 100-101, PsH 384, RL 292-293, TH 252]

OLIVET ("My Faith Looks Up to Thee")
[PH 383, PsH 262, RL 446, TH 528]

RIPLEY ("Praise the LORD! Sing Hallelujah!)
[PsH 146]

WESLEY ("Sing to the LORD")
[PsH 96, TH 62]

ZERAH ("The Glorious Gates of Righteousness")
[PsH 179]

Sherman D. Vander Ark is a professor of Music Education at the University of Akron and is a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Akron, Ohio.


Reformed Worship 25 © September 1992 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.