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Lowell Mason

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Lowell Mason


Lowell Mason (8 January 1792, Medfield, Mass – 11 August 1872, Orange, N.J.) was a leading figure in American church music.

Mason grew up in Medfield, Massachusetts, where he became the Music Director of First Parish (now First Parish Unitarian Universalist) Church at age 17.

He spent the first part of his adulthood in Savannah, Georgia, where he worked first in a dry-goods store, then in a bank. He had very strong amateur musical interests, and studied music with the German teacher Frederick L. Abel, eventually starting to write his own music. He also became a leader in the music of the Independent Presbyterian Church, where he served as choir director and organist. Under his initiative, his church created the first Sunday school for black children in America at the now Historic First Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah, GA.

Following an earlier British model, Mason produced a highly successful hymnal, published (1822) by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, whose tunes were drawn from the work of European classical composers, such as Haydn and Mozart.

In 1827, Mason moved to Boston, where he continued his banking career for some time. Mason served as choirmaster and organist at Park Street Church from 1829 to 1831. He eventually became a music director for three churches, in a six-month rotation, including the Hanover Street church, whose pastor was the prominent abolitionist Lyman Beecher.

Mason became an important figure on the Boston musical scene: He served as president of the Handel and Haydn Society, taught music in the public schools, was co-founder of the Boston Academy of Music (1833). In 1838 he was appointed music superintendent for the Boston school system. In the 1830s, Mason set to music the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb.

In 1851, at the age of 59, Mason retired from Boston musical activity and moved to New York City where his sons, Daniel and Lowell, Jr. had established a music business. During a tour of Europe in 1852, he developed a great interest and enthusiasm for congregational singing, especially that in the German churches of Nicolaikirche in Leipzig and the Kreuzkirche in Dresden.

Following his return to New York City, Mason accepted the position as music director in 1853 for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. During his tenure, which lasted until 1860, he developed congregational singing to the point where the church was known as having the finest congregational singing in the city. In 1859 Mason, along with Edwards A. Parks and Austin Phelps published the Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book. This part of his career probably had the most enduring effects on American church music. Mason personally changed his view from imagining that church congregations were reluctant to sing to vigorously promoting congregational singing. He eliminated all professional musicians save the organist.

Mason was the composer of over 1600 hymn tunes, many of which are often sung today. His most well-known tunes include his arrangement of Joy to the World and Bethany, his setting of the hymn, Nearer, My God, to Thee. He was largely responsible for introducing music into American public schools, and is considered to be the first important music educator in the United States. He is also widely criticized for his role in helping to largely eliminate the robust tradition of participatory sacred music that flourished in America before his time.

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