Academic journal article Journal of Historical Research in Music Education

"In an Easy and Familiar Style:" Music Education and Improvised Accompaniment Practices in the U.S., 1820-80

Academic journal article Journal of Historical Research in Music Education

"In an Easy and Familiar Style:" Music Education and Improvised Accompaniment Practices in the U.S., 1820-80

Article excerpt

A complimentary review of a performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1871 of William Bradbury's popular choral work, Esther, the Beautiful Queen, drew particular attention to the ensemble's accompanist, Ella Sheppard. The critic noted that Sheppard, an organist, "played with true artistic touch, showing consummate skill and taste as well as a thorough knowledge of musical rules, as to progressions and modulations." An examination of Bradbury's score reveals the abundance of "musical rules" Sheppard followed with considerable facility, for most of the work's numbers lack fully written-out accompaniments and none include figured bass symbols. The comments regarding Sheppard's performance, especially the observation of her familiarity with "progressions and modulations," strongly imply that she improvised accompaniments. Ultimately, her unimpeachable ability at the keyboard "much improved the effect" of the Singers' production of Esther, the Beautiful Queen. (3)

Regardless of how much or how little of the accompaniment to Esther Sheppard may have worked out in advance, the fact remains that Bradbury's music manifests accompaniment practices commonplace in the U.S. during the years spanning approximately 1820 to 1880. Much of the music published in this time period consisted of tune book choral scores printed without accompaniment, or with accompaniments merely suggested by the use of figured bass symbols. In the absence of figured bass, a keyboard player of modest ability could create a functional accompaniment by simply doubling the pitches of some of the voice parts with little, if any, elaboration. Tune book scores not only facilitated these practices, but their format also reveals that American musicians retained certain fundamental expectations and assumptions associated with the European Baroque accompaniment tradition. In the very least, to realize an accompaniment from a tune book score required a basic knowledge of diatonic harmony and, in some cases, that the player be able to comprehend figured bass symbols.

There were discernible differences between European and American accompaniment practices, however. In the U.S., the performance of improvised accompaniment endured decades beyond the European transition from the Baroque to the Classical style period. Aside from the matter of longevity, improvised accompaniment practices in Europe were largely associated with cultivated concert, operatic, sacred, or court repertoire. Conversely, tune book content consisted mostly of uncomplicated music not normally considered to represent the cultivated tradition, such as popular and religious songs and instructional pieces. Those who performed tune book accompaniments were usually amateurs, teachers, or church musicians, whereas European musicians who realized accompaniments, especially during the Baroque period, had generally learned their art through extensive, specialized training, often in a conservatory environment.

In the discussion below I consider salient aspects of tune book accompaniment notation and practices prevalent in nineteenth-century U.S. during the era associated with Lowell Mason and the early decades of the music education movement. Tune books printed with standard notation rather than shape-notes will comprise the subject of this discussion. I will focus on a format common in tune books of this period: four-voice scores with each voice printed on a separate staff.

Tune Books

   We have tune books without number, ...
   and a new tune book is wanted every
   year, just as the makers of them intend.

      James M. Hewins (1856) (4)

Throughout the nineteenth century, the American publishing industry flooded the market with thousands of inexpensive tune books crammed with popular songs. (5) The commercially-driven format prevailed, in part, because Americans did not import the system of aristocratic and royal patronage that supported many celebrated European composers, performers, and publishing ventures. …

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