Encouraging Excellence in Eighteenth-Century American Church Music

The importance of the use of music of quality in the service of worship was a topic of discussion and writing in late eighteenth-century America. Two men, Andrew Adgate and Francis Hopkinson, both of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania worked tirelessly to encourage excellence in church music.  Hopkinson

In 1784, Andrew Adgate helped organize the “Institution for the Encouragement of Church Music.” In the following year, he also founded a “Free School for Spreading the Knowledge of Vocal Music.” Through his work, the organists, choral directors and singers of Philadelphia had the opportunity to enhance their skills and provide more excellent music for their worshipping congregations.

Francis Hopkinson also weighed in on the subject of excellence in church music and in particular the use of the organ in worship. Hopkinson was known in the Philadelphia music world as an organist and harpsichordist and as one of America’s first native-born composers. Outside the world of music, Hopkinson was a jurist, the first Secretary of the US Navy and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Om 1786, Hopkinson sent a letter to the Rev. Doctor White, Rector of Christ Church and St. Peter’s in Philadelphia on the conduct of a church organ. Hopkinson’s letter provides a contemporary viewpoint of church music from 1750 to 1800. The letter begins, “I am one of those who take great delight in sacred music, and think, with royal David, that heart, voice, and instrument should unite in adoration of the great Supreme.” He continues, “To give wings, as it were to this holy zeal, and heighten the harmony of the soul, organs have been introduced into the churches.” Hopkinson then suggests “a few rules for the conduct of an organ in a place of worship” according to his own “ideas of propriety.”

Summarizing Hopkinson’s thoughts:

1. The excellence of an organist consists in making the instrument subservient and conducive to the purposes of devotion. None but a master can do this.

2. The voluntary was probably designed to fill a solemn pause in the service. The organ hath its part alone, and the organist an opportunity of showing his power over the instrument.

3. The chants form a pleasing and animating part of the service. Melody may be frivolous; harmony never.

4. The prelude which the organ plays immediately after the psalm was intended to advertise the congregation of the psalm tune which is going to be sung. The tune should be distinctly given out by the organ, with only a few chaste and expressive decorations, such as none but a master can give.

5. The interludes between the verses of the psalm were designed to give the singers a little pause in which the organ ought to assist in their reflections.S2SS logo

6. The voluntary after the service was never intended to eradicate every serious idea which he sermon may have indicated. It should rather be expressive of that cheerful satisfaction which a good heart feels under the sense of a duty performed.

In general, the purpose of Adgate’s schools and Hopkinson’s writing is to ensure that church music should ever preserve its dignity led by the conscientious efforts of singers and organists.

Jeannine received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Oregon specializing in Classical Organ performance.  Her dissertation delved into the lives and times of early American organists.  Dr. Jordan with media artist, David Jordan have created an organ and multimedia concert experience showcasing the music of early America in From Sea to Shining Sea.


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