The Bay Psalm Book Tercentenary, 1698-1998

Article excerpt

In 1698, the Boston printers Bartholomew Green and John Allen brought out a ninth edition of the Bay Psalm Book.(1) In it one sees the first music printed in the British colonies. Music had been printed in the New World as early as the 1540s in Mexican service books, nearly a century before even the first Bay Psalm Book of 1640. The music printing in Mexico soon died out, however: the 1698 Bay Psalm Book was to begin a bibliographical lineage that continues to today. We honor it on its three hundredth birthday.

None of the eight earlier editions of the Bay Psalm Book have music. Whose idea was it to include the notes? My candidate is Increase Mather, who was living in London between 1688 and 1691 as a spokesman for the colonists. Here he would have heard of the Playfords, whose name today evokes spicy song texts, but then was identified with music of all kinds, promoted through the printing press. The Playfords' own psalm books were Anglican, however: the music of the ninth Bay Psalm Book understandably resembles that seen in a London book, also issued in 1698, by Mather's fellow dissenter John Patrick.(2)

We may still wonder what the printed music was meant to accomplish. Musical notation was not common in early America: it could be seen in imported printed books, but manuscript copy is rarely found, so as to beg the question of who in the colonies ever used it. Certainly no congregation shivering in January in a poorly lit sanctuary - especially one that for sight-reading would have needed to move between minuscule words on one page and barely legible notes many pages ahead. More likely, the text was meant as authority and aide memoire for respected leaders of the flock who could read solfege and with lusty voices sing to the greater glory of God, if not necessarily to the musical delight of each other. While we today find His ways beyond all human understanding, in mysterious ways God, through His deputies, clearly did bless this Information Transfer Process. But let us leave theology and return to bibliography.

Some landmarks of printing are breathtaking: their historic mission is clear. The Gutenberg Bibles come to mind. This ninth Bay Psalm Book falls at the other end of the spectrum. Like its predecessors and, successors, it is fat and fragile in 12s, signed A-S, with 440 pages.(3) This is a book that bibliographers would kill to tear apart to study many interesting questions.(4) (Rare book curators would murder them if they tried and likely be acquitted.) A six-leaf appendix was added in 1699 and is seen in both surviving copies.(5)

The music was printed from sixty-three wood blocks, each barely three-eighths of an inch high and just under two inches long, for the treble and bass of each of thirteen tunes. These were spread over eleven pages at the end of the last gathering, usually six staves to a page but once five and once seven. The treble and bass for the same music thus sometimes turn up on different pages. Whoever took care of the imposition probably used makeshift furniture and was likely musically illiterate. Sight-reading was probably never intended: after all, the words were on still different pages. Solmization syllables (the letters m, f, s, and l) below the music are set in movable type. All told, analytical bibliographers cannot be very happy describing the book's production.

Nor do we know much about the distribution. It was available from Michael Perry, "under the west-end of the Town House" in Boston. A press run of several hundred copies seems a fair guess.(6) The ninth edition is far less famous than the first, but it is also far scarcer. Two copies survive, both with evidence of their early owners: at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, signed by William Davis in 1712, and at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, signed by Benjamin Dolbeare in 1725.(7) Of the early inventories of the Mather personal collections, none of them mention our 1698 book. …