Thursday, August 24, 2006

Her Heart Can See

From chapter 5 of Her Heart Can See: the Life and Hymns of Fanny J Crosby, by Edith Blumhofer, published by Eerdmans 2005.

Measured in sales, [Lowell] Mason’s 1841 Carmina Sacra (which the New York Times reported had enjoyed ‘a larger sale than any other music book ever published’) was his most successful single endeavour, but he kept producing new collections. ‘Every well organised choir, if kept up with interest, must have a constant succession of new music. Without this there will be no advancement….the progress of things is ever onward,’ Mason drilled into his following. Mason both stimulated and responded to the incessant clamour for something new: it nicely blended conviction and financial gain. Before he left for Europe in 1851, Mason was listed among Boston’s 2,000 wealthiest men, with a net worth in 2003 dollars of more than $2.45 million.

Mason’s affluence came at the price of incessant work. Admirers marvelled at the self-discipline that made his output possible. A newspaper reported that during his Boston years, Mason edited music and text during every meal and devoted mornings and afternoons to teaching, lecturing, and other business. After his evening meal he gave lessons or worked with his choir. His days seldom ended before midnight, and work often occupied him until 2 am. ‘It is said,’ one observer quipped when Mason was at the height of his fame, ‘that for twenty years he was never known to spend even half a day in mere amusement…his work was his recreation.’

In the heady days of the early republic, Northeasterners of Mason’s stamp dared to believe they could mold an American culture. Noah Webster urged an American language, benevolent societies envisioned a moral social order, Mason’s Boston cohorts supplied an American literature, Horace Mann imagined an educated public, and Mason himself made the case for the ennobling national benefits of music. While later critics sometimes grumbled about the ‘simplistic ditties’ and ‘easily digestible arrangements of themes from the classics’ that Mason permitted to ‘vitiate the tastes of generations,’ his contemporaries hailed him widely as one who offered both the plan and the tools to give the enjoyment and practice of music to ordinary Americans.

Mason acted on his convictions about the importance and promise of music in congregations and schools in many ways, none more important than the training he provided a privileged coterie that might be described as his proteges and partners-in-music. Two of these had prominent roles in Fanny Crosby’s life. One, George Frederick Root, found in Mason’s Boston circle the building blocks for a distinguished career. In time he brought vocal music education to the New York Institution for the Blind. The other, William Bradbury – composer, publisher, teacher, editor – became Crosby’s publisher, booster and friend. Mason molded Root and Bradbury. They, in turn, made Crosby a marketable commodity and so shaped the second half of her life.
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