This online essay-exhibition is a presentation of research conducted in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University on the early compositions of James Lyon (1735-1794) and the musical culture of mid-18th century colonial America.

An ode on peace / Davies, Samuel, 1723-1761.
“An ode on peace / Davies, Samuel, 1723-1761.” (2003-0204Q) Rare Book Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. (1760)

On 26th September 1759, the graduating class of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) was treated to a rather novel entertainment. No doubt struggling in the usual humidity and heat of a late-summer New Jersey day, the seniors (just 18 in total) went about the Latin and English commencement exercises with due skill and propriety. The ceremony then concluded with an “Ode” written by President Rev. Samuel Davies and set to music by their fellow classmate James Lyon (New York Mercury, 1759). Little did they know that they were witnessing a landmark event in the history of American music: arguably the first American composition.

“Arguably” is the operative word here, as there are many caveats and qualifications that accompany this claim. The famous American musicologist Oscar Sonneck originally proposed in 1905 that the first American composition—i.e. music composed by a person born in Colonial America—is either James Lyon’s Commencement Ode mentioned above, or Francis Hopkinson’s “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” both dating from 1759. But many have since dismissed Sonneck’s reasoning, and rightly so. Nicholas Temperley has pointed to the anonymous sacred compositions before 1759 and, more glaringly, to the music of Native Americans that may predate all these colonial compositions by thousands of years (Temperley, pp. 1- 3). Sonneck’s claim is, then, more accurately translated as “the first written down secular composition by an American-born white man.” It is not quite as catchy as “America’s first composition,” but it is closer to the truth.

Nevertheless, James Lyon’s 1759 Commencement Ode represents a turning point in contemporary attitudes towards music around 1760, especially among reformed Protestants, and an ambitious addition to college commencement ceremonies that developed further into the 1760s. Unfortunately, only the words to the 1759 Ode have survived. But in my attempts to find Lyon’s musical setting in the Princeton University Rare Books and Special Collections archives, I ended up piecing together a more complex and revealing story of mid-18th-century American music than I initially expected. The following exhibition is a presentation of those thoughts and findings.

This online exhibition is divided into three sections. The first section, 1759-1760: Beginnings, looks at three commencement odes for which the texts but none of the music has survived. In searching for these pieces I have painted a picture of the extraordinary circumstances that, for at least five years from 1759, led to Princeton being the source of considerable compositional activity in colonial America.

The exhibition then moves out of Princeton to Philadelphia where Lyon lived and taught from c.1759 to 1762. While there he produced Urania, the first, and largest, collection of psalm tunes, anthems, and hymns ever published by an American in the Colonies. It gives us a glimpse of the broader musical trends and developments in and around Philadelphia in the mid-18th century.

The final section, 1762-1763: Princeton and beyond, takes us initially back to Princeton where the modest commencement odes of 1759 and 1760 had grown into more substantial musical dramas with a political edge. This section questions whether the two commencement presentations are in fact by Lyon before looking at the legacy of this music leading to the Revolutionary Wars.

Throughout this geographically and chronologically limited journey, Lyon proves himself to be a slippery character. No manuscripts or sketchbooks are known to currently exist, and many of the writings and music that have survived are attributed to Lyon only by careful yet circumstantial deduction. It was common for small essays, poems, and indeed commencement publications, to be published anonymously, and Lyon seems to conform with this trend. The exhibition addresses these issues as they arise. There are still many missing pieces of the puzzle, so readers should contact me directly if they uncover any new evidence or would like to question the content of the exhibition.