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The history of mucis in Massachusetts quite naturally centers on its capital city, Boston; yet surrounding towns also developed their own musical lives, whose histories, though perhaps more limited in scope than that of their urban neighbor, augment our knowledge of music in nineteenth-century America. A case in point in Winchester (formerly South Woburn), Massachusetts, lying eight miles north of Boston in the Mystic Valley and presenting a capsule view of many musical experiences in New England, some linked with Boston and some quite separate.
Settled in the seventeenth century by colonists from Charlestown, the village of South Woburn was principally an agricultural community until the mid-nineteenth century. In 1850, it was incorporated with territory annexed from two neighboring towns as the town of Winchester.(1) The advent of the railroad in the 1830s spurred the country village's development both as an industrial center and as a suburban residential community -- home to many Boston businessmen. Throughout the nineteenth century, it was a picturesque community with many waterways, fields, and woods that attracted artists like J. Foxcroft Cole to live and work there. Within this community, music developed in a variety of ways -- as a church activity, a recreation and community entertainment, an art, a professional endeavor, and an industry.
Documented community music-making in the South Woburn/Winchester area dates back to the early nineteenth century, when the area was still rural.(2) Before the first South Woburn church was organized (while residents attended the rather distant churches of their parent communities), the villagers were still able to meet together to sing in their own neighborhood through the singing schools. In 1887, David Youngman, one of Winchester's singing-school teachers, recalled the old days of singing schools in the Winchester Record.(3) Some of his reminiscences predate the South Woburn schools; yet since they give color to the later part of his story, they are worth quoting at some length. Youngman related:
Fifty years ago, a country singing-school was an institution peculiar to itself. The teachers were, generally, intelligent men, of rather more than average ability, though for the most part amateurs, devoting only three or four months during the winter to this employment, and the remainder of the year to other pursuits. Some of them were college or other students who, possessing musical tastes and talents, would spend their winter vacations in teaching, in order to replenish their finances and help defay their expenses.
The average salary paid these teachers, in that day, was two dollars per evening, -- seldom more, except in wealthy towns and to distinguished teachers,--and the money was ordinarily raised by general subscription. A teacher would arrange during the autumn, and obtain three or four schools in as many different villages, as near together as possible, . . . giving generally twenty-four lessons to each school. He would also usually conduct the music on the Sabbath at some of the churches in his vicinity. . . .
The writer of this paper remembers singing-schools taught as early as 1830. . . . The teachers did not, as a general thing, play the violin in their schools, but depended almost entirely on their voices; and their instruction consisted more in singing and rehearsing the tunes than in practising the scale or teaching the elements. Their examples, their corrections, and their criticisms were given almost entirely by the voice, thus bringing it into requisition almost continuously, and very often injuriously.
The schools were larger and attended by more adults than at a later date. In 1837 the writer taught a singing-school in Vermont, where he often had one hundred and fifty scholars, of nearly all ages. Many of them came half a dozen miles, at every session, through snowdrifts and the usual discomforts of a New England winter. The singing-school was almost the only gathering young people had during the winter, and they made the most of it.
There being no lectures, no theatres, or other sources of public amusement, the singing-school was attended by large numbers of almost every age and of every condition. If the sleighing were good, the jingling of the merry bells would be heard far and near, while the lads and lasses, comfortably wrapped in furs and buffalo-robes, bravely and successfully defied the rigors of the inclement winter. . . .
Between the years 1835 and 1840 changes began to be noticed, both in the methods of teaching and in the character of the schools. The teachers began to depend more on the violing or some other musical instrument, and less on their voices. More time was spent in teaching the rudiments, in practising the scale, and in cultivating the voice. The blackboard began to be used to illustrate the scale and its transpositions, and on which to write the various examples for practice.
Large books of printed lessons were also introduced by some teachers, containing exercises which could be plainly exhibited to the whole school. The one originated and published by Dr. Lowell Mason, the veteran teacher, was mostly in use. Besides, the schools were not so largely attended as formerly, and fewer adults were seen in them; in fact, the schools gradually became composed mostly of members of the choirs, of the younger portion of society, and of those who really desired to cultivate their voices and perfect their musical education.(4)
"The first singing-school taught in South Woburn of which there is any remembrance," recalled Youngman, was in the winter of 1838-39, in the hall of the once famous Black Horse Tavern," and the next was taught in a red schoolhouse. "There being at that time but few sources of public amusement and recreation for the young people of South Woburn during the winter, both these schools were largely attended and were enjoyed by nearly all citizens of the place."(5) These schools may have been modeled on the singing school of Woburn that had begun five years earlier and was taught by Nathaniel D. Gould, a singing teacher for about forty-eight years.(6) The South Woburn schools were first led by Joseph Gould (no relation to Nathaniel), who used voice, violin, and blackboard and who was paid four dollars per evening. Youngman noted that Gould "had an excellent voice, and generally sung the tenor; but, if occasion required, could sing the soprano equally well."(7)
After the South Woburn church was organized in 1840, Joseph Gould was employed to lead the choir (numbering about twenty) and conduct the music. As the singing schools became the training ground for the church choirs, they quite naturally moved into the church, where several teachers succeeded Gould within a span of five years: John Gibson; Asa Trowbridge of Newton, composer, violinist, tenor, and music teacher; and Alvin Taylor, a merchant, postmaser, and town treasurer who "made an acceptable leader for an ordinary country choir."(8)
In 1845-46, a difference of opinion arose over who should teach the singing school. Some favored reengaging Trowbridge, argued to be the better and more scientific teacher; others preferred Gibson, supposedly a better musician. Two singing schools thus ran concurrently (without any ill will), one in the district schoolhouse, the other in the church vestry.
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