Item of the Day: On Vocal Music (1787)

Found In: A Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings. On Moral, Historical, Political and Literary Subjects. By Noah Webster, Jun. Attorney at Law. Pronted at Boston, for the author, by I. Thomas and E. T. Andrews . . . MDCCXC. [1790]

[pp. 229-230]

 

NO. XIX.

PHILADELPHIA, 1787.

 

On VOCAL MUSIC.

The establishment of schools for teaching psalmody in this city is a pleasing institution; but people seem not to understand the design, or rather are not properly conducted and encouraged. Most people consider music merely as a source of pleasure; not attending to its influence on the human mind, and its consequent effects on society. But it should be regarded as an article of education, useful as well as ornamental.

The human mind is formed for activity; and will ever be employed in business or diversions. Children are prepetually in motion, and all the ingenuity of their parents and guardians should be exerted to devise methods for restraining this activ principle, and directing it to some useful object, or to harmeless trifles. If this is not done, their propensity to action, even without a vicious motiv, will hurry them into follies and crimes. Every thing innocent, that attracts the attention of children, and will employ their minds in leisure hours, when idleness might otherwise open the way to vice, must be considered as a valuable employment. Of this kind is vocal music. There were instances of youth, the last winter, who voluntarily attended a singing school in preference to theatre. It is but reasonable to suppose, that if they would neglect a theatre for singing, they would neglect a thousand amusements, less engaging, and more pernicious.

Instrumental music is generally prefered to vocal, and considered as an elegant accomplishment. It is indeed a pleasing accomplishment; but the preference given to it, is a species of the same false taste, which places a son under the tuition of a drunken clown, to make him a gentleman of strict morals.

Instrumental music may exceed vocal in some nice touches and distinctions of sound; but when regarded as to its effects upn the mind and upon society, it is as inferior to vocal, as sound is inferior to sense. It is very easy for a spruce beau to display a contempt for vocal music, and to say that human invention has gone beyond the works of God almighty. But till the system of creation shall be new modelled, the human voice properly cultivated will be capable of making he most perfect music. It is neglected; sol saing is unfashionable, and that is enough to damn it: But people who have not been acquainted with the perfection of psalmody, are incapable of making a suitable comparison between vocal and instrumental music. I have often heard the best vocal concerts in America, and the best instrumental concerts; and can declare, that the music of the latter is as inferior to that of the former, as the merit of a band box macaroni is to that of a Cato.

Instrumental music affords an agreeable amusement; and as an amusement it ought to be cultivated. But the advantage is private and limited; it pleases the ear, but leaves no impression upon the heart.

The design of music is to awaken the passions, to soften the heart for the reception of sentiment. To awaken passion is within the power of instruments, and this may afford a temporary pleasure; but society derives no advantage from it, unless some useful sentiment is left upon the heart. . . .

 

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Filed under 1790's, Culture, Early Republic, Education, Music, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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