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Lowell Mason - the Father of Music Education

Lowell Mason is known to many as the founder of music education. In his lifetime he was also a composer of both secular and non-secular music and contributed greatly to putting actual staffs and notes into church hymnals. Yet his greatest accomplishment shall always remain his enormous contribution to promoting the necessity of music education.

“Let [music] no longer be regarded merely as the ornament of life. Let it no longer be regarded merely as the ornament of the rich. Still, let it continue to adorn the abodes of wealth, but let it also light up with gladness, the honest hearth of poverty. Once introduce music into the common schools and you make it what it should be made, the property of the whole people. And so, as time passes away, and one race succeeds to another, the true object of our system of Public Education may be realized, and we may, year after year, raise up good citizens to the Commonwealth, by sending forth from our schools, happy, useful, well-instructed, contended members of society.”
This statement, from his first request to the Boston public school system, is a testament to the commitment that he had to changing the system for the benefit of all of society with the simple goal of putting music into the public education system. However, this proved to be quite challenging. Even when he offered to teach for nothing, the school system wasn't ready to devote the time that this would require. Mason persisted, and when he presented his offer a second time, he was allowed yo run his programs.

After the success of Mason's and others' programs, the enthusiam for adding music to the general curriculum continued to grow. Support for public music instruction came from many areas. One was the increasing number of private music teachers who were being trained in the singing schools. Another came from an increase of choral activities resulting from the growth of choral societies. The formation of symphony orchestras that toured the Untied States created a strong interest among the general public. American composers such as George Chadwick and Edward MacDowell were having their works preformed both in the United States and internationally. Music education was now being realized for its societal impact, a value many Americans still cherished in an age where the grand idea of an American aristocracy and "Society" was in danger of being lost. Its categorization as an art and as a subject of great importance later proved to be very influential in the expansion of music in the public schools.

Mason's appeal was his adhearance to the old ideals and the virtues of classical, time-honoured pieces. He was very much in favour of the European system of notation and in his own work wrote many pieces in the four part soprano-based melody common to European works. He also arranged many of these works in his collection Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music. This was a great asset that stemmed from his boyhood in Massachusetts and later his young adulthood in the stately Savannah, Georgia.

His youth, surprisingly, was not one which encouraged music as a profession. He was born on January eighth, 1792, in Medfield, Massachucetts. At the age of 13, he attended a singing school and was instructed by Amos Albee, who later compiled The Norfolk Collection of Sacred Harmony. At 16, he was directing the Medfield church choir, and later the Medfield band. At 20, he moved to Savannah, Georgia, and worked in a dry goods store. Music still, he thought, was not in the cards for him and he thought he'd be a banker. However, from 1813 to 1824, he was leading singing schools and concerts all over Savannah. During that time he also became the superintendant of the Sunday school and leader at the Independendant Presbyterian Church. Later he would be appointed the choir director and organist.

While in Savannah, he also had the oppurtunity to study harmony and composition under the instruction of Fredrick Abel, a German imagrant and talented musician. In 1818, he found the Savannah Missionary society. In 1822, his arrangements were published in his collection Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music, which was based on the work of William Gardiner and his collection, Sacred Melodies. In 1826, he gave his Address on Church Music, a speech in which he outlined his basic beliefs of congregational music. From the outline of his speech:

  • Church music must be simple, chaste, correct, and free of ostentation.
  • The text must be handled with as much care as the music; each must enhance the other.
  • Congregational singing must be promoted.
  • Capable choirs and judiciously used instruments, particularly the organ, are indispensable aids to services.
  • A solid music education for all children is the only means of genuine reform in church music.
  • Musicianship per se is subordinate to facilitating worship.

He left Savannah in 1827 upon accepting an invitation to the music supervisor of three congregational churches in Boston and in addition become the president and music director of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society until 1832.

During this time, he wrote the Juvenile Psalmist, the first collection of Sunday school hymns, which was followed by his next collection, the Juvenile Lyre, published between 1830 and 1831. In 1831, he became the choir master of Lyman Beecher's Bowdoin Street Church, and in the next year began a children's voice class and children's concerts. Then in 1833, he founded the Boston Academy of Music with George Webb, a fellow musician. In 1834 he edited and translated G.F. Kuebler's Anleitung zum Gesang-Unterrichte in Schulen (losely translated meaning "Guidance to singing-informed in schools") and re-published it as The Manual of the Boston Academy of Music. The academy focused on the European, Pestalozzian method of teaching music, who argued that children should learn through action and not just memorization. Of education, Pestalozzi said:

"I wish to wrest education from the outworn order of doddering old teaching hacks as well as from the new-fangled order of cheap, artificial teaching tricks, and entrust it to the eternal powers of nature herself, to the light which God has kindled and kept alive in the hearts of fathers and mothers, to the interests of parents who desire their children grow up in favour with God and with men."
Though the Academy did focus on a private education for both adults and children, its leaders were much more concerned with getting music education to the masses and in the public school system. Academy associates and other prominent citizens submitted two proposals to the Massachusetts School Board urging that vocal music instruction be made part of the primary school curriculum. Following the second proposal in 1837, the board agreed to an experimental inclusion of vocal music at Hawes Primary School; Mason volunteered his services as instructor. In 1838, the board voted to include music in public elementary schools, marking the first time in American history that music was officially given a place in the school curriculum.

In 1837, Mason became the superintendant of the music curriculum in Boston public schools, and even after resigning from the position in 1845, he continued to teach there until 1851. Also in 1837, he made his first trip to Europe to both learn from and teach European educators in regards to the Pestalozzian method. In addition to teaching, he also was the choir master of the General Church from 1844 to 1851, where he conducted over one hundred singers. From 1845 to 1855, he was a staff member of the teachers' institutes of Massachusetts State Board of Education and was involved in state sponsored teacher training, something he felt was absolutely essential in order to produce positive results from teachers and students alike. After leaving his teaching career, much to the chagrin of both students and staff, he went on a tour of the British Isles and lectured on the importance of the Pestalozzian method in schools and congregational singing in church. This was another one of his deeply held and widely spoken of beliefs that in order to worship, music was paramount. Upon his return, he moved to New York. In 1855, he was awarded an honourary doctorate in music by New York University and was received by a very large crowd of both admirers and former students. In 1872, at the age of 80, he died.

Mason had four sons, all active musically. The two eldest, Daniel Gregory and Lowell, formed a publishing company in New York City. Lowell, the third son, Henry, and Emmons Hamlin founded Mason & Hamlin, a firm that first made organs and later made pianos. The youngest son, William Mason, was a distinguished concert pianist and teacher. He studied in Europe with Liszt and others. With Theodore Thomas he organized a chamber-music ensemble that did much to interest Americans in chamber music. In 1909, he wrote Memories of a Musical Life.

His almost 1200 hymns that he composed were a testament to his religious life, and his work in the school system futhered the arts to the idea that it is today. Though the intentions of adhering to a high society collapsed, the music and his teachings have survived. In the April, 1993 issue of The Hymn, a magazine devoted entirely to congregational singing, Carol Pemberton wrote an article entitled "Praising God Through Congregational Song: Lowell Mason's Contributions to Church Music," where she outlines aspects of a speech he delived in October, 1826 (though they were beliefs he held all of his life) that are still used in churches today in regards to both the music and the singers, with special emphasis on teaching the fundamentals of music to children in Sunday school. His legacy will always remain his contributions to music education and helping the educators of the day to realize its importance to every student.

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