Advice to the Organists Wisdom from the Pages of the Euterpeiad, 1820-1823

By Peeples, Georgia | The American Organist, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Advice to the Organists Wisdom from the Pages of the Euterpeiad, 1820-1823


Peeples, Georgia, The American Organist


MUCH 19th-century American music journalism is marked by idealism and optimism, by a missionary zeal to promote the "best" music and encourage informed performances of the repertoire. Yet much of the European classical repertoire, written for orchestras, opera companies, and established chamber groups did not make the Atlantic crossing until later in the 19th century, when these institutions began to appear in American culture. Even during this time, however, when formal American concert life was still in its infancy, there was a regular public forum for the presentation of music, the weekly church service, which in many religious traditions included choral and organ music, as well as congregational singing.

One of the best journalistic sources to report on American music in the early 19th century was the Euterpeiad, or Musical Intelligencer, published from 1820 until 1823 by Thomas Badger and John Rowe Parker of Boston, who also served as its editors for most of the journal's existence. Parker, who was also a businessman, attempted to educate his public in the history of music and to provide reviews and commentary on current performers and performances.1 Although the Euterpeiad includes articles by foreign contributors, reviewing the musical culture of Europe, Parker's New England vantage point provided him the opportunity to hear both touring European musicians and emerging American artists.

Parker's culture was grounded in New England religious practice, primarily a Protestant tradition highlighted by a weekly Sunday service. It was here, in the context of the service of worship, that much of the "classical" tradition was first regularly presented, and Parker's concern for its quality, as well as a pre-transcendentalist desire to elevate public taste, distinguishes his reports. Although not an organist himself, Parker displayed a particular enthusiasm for the instrument, reporting on the installation of organs, both here and abroad, describing the resources of those organs, and even offering extensive advice to those on the bench.

Certainly, organs had been in use in the New World for some time. Their appearance in the 18th-century British colonies is well documented, and these instruments were predated by organs used in Spain's Catholic colonies.2 American organbuilding had begun in earnest by the later 18th century, and the early 19th century witnessed rapid growth in the installation of organs, both imported and built in the United States.3 Yet it is with great excitement that Parker reported on the installation of organs in leading New England churches. He generally did not provide detailed specifications for most American organs, with the exception of the Old South Church and Old North Church organs, which recently had been installed in Boston.4 Included in his notices are announcements of organs newly installed in St. Paul's Church in New York City,5 in the Episcopal Church of Edisto Island,6 and at the churches of the Rev. Channing on Federal Street and of Dr. Nichols, also in Boston.7 (Parker also printed reports of several European organs, including one found at the Garrison church in Berlin, and one in Harlaem, as described to him by foreign correspondents.8

Although Parker was lacking in specific mechanical knowledge of the instrument, his advice to players, particularly in services, was often detailed and sometimes precise. His concerns provide insight into the standard conventions and repertoire of the ordinary organist, a look into the performance practices of the time. Indeed, many of his suggestions and criticisms may still ring familiar to today's organists.

Voluntaries, Voicing, Volume, and Virtuosity

Voluntaries were performed, and frequently improvised, during church services, and the organist's ability to weave such works tastefully into the fabric of worship was a matter of some concern:

The voluntary previous to reading the lessons was probably designed to fill up a solemn pause in the service; during which the clergyman takes a few minutes respite in a duty too long, perhaps, to be continued without fatigue, unless some intermission were allowed; then the organ has its part alone, and the organist an opportunity of showing his power over the instrument. …

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