1759 - 1760: Beginnings

James Lyon’s music for the three odes written by Rev. Samuel Davies (1723-1761) is currently lost. The question that remains is why was the small town of Princeton in 1759 the place for such a pioneering musical event?

Samuel Davies (1723–1761), Hon. A.M. 1753, President (1759–61), 1874.
“Samuel Davies (1723–1761), Hon. A.M. 1753, President (1759–61), 1874.” Oil on canvas by James Massalon. Princeton University Art Museum.

Samuel Davies had been a significant contributor to College of New Jersey even before he took up the presidency in 1759. Six years previously, Davies had been on a successful fundraising trip to Great Britain for the building of Nassau Hall. Yet he was initially reluctant at to accept the top job, refusing the offer in 1758. James Lyon was already nearing graduation when Davies finally accepted the presidency, arriving in Princeton in July 1759. It seems that they developed a good relationship early on considering that the 1759 Commencement Ode was written and performed just two months after Davies’ arrival.

Though we do not know much about Davies’ musical background, there is evidence to suggest that he had a considerable interest in music. The famous Methodist John Wesley recorded in his journal that Davies had taught psalm singing to slaves (Curnock 1938, 125-6), so it is reasonable to assume that he had some ability at singing. Davies’ relationship with Wesley also influenced his enthusiastic embrace of hymn writing and singing, a radical position at the time for a Presbyterian (Silverman 1976, 45). After all, Presbyterians in colonial America, while not completely opposed to music like the Quakers in Pennsylvania, only permitted the unaccompanied singing of psalms in church.

Perhaps Davies, given his more liberal attitude towards music, may also have had a hand in the purchasing of an organ for the Prayer Hall in Nassau Hall. This organ, sadly, no longer survives. In fact, it only lived a short life between c.1760 and its ultimate destruction in 1777 when the pipes were used to make bullets in the Revolutionary War (Pinel 1989, 4). Still, its brief presence at the College of New Jersey is something of a curiosity, given the Presbyterian Church’s opposition to instrumental music. Our principal witness to the organ in Nassau Hall is Ezra Stiles, who later became President of Yale College. In a dairy entry dated 10th July 1770 he writes:

Perhaps about ten years ago there was an Organ erected in Nassau Hall for the use of the Scholars at public prayers—on Ldsdays the college attend pub. Worship in the Meetg h. of the Town of Princetown. I then thought it an Innovation of ill consequence, & that the Trustees were too easily practised upon. They were a little sick of it. The organ has been disused for sundry years, & never was much used.

This raises more questions that it answers. First and foremost, how did the college acquire the organ? Who persuaded the trustees to allow its installation in Nassau Hall? Was it perhaps Samuel Davies? Why had they become sick of it by 1770? The late Charles Kaufman speculated that its disuse was a sign that these dissenting Presbyterian’s had apparently gone “too far too early in their adoption of instrumental music” (Kaufman 1981, 86). But for a while the College was clearly pleased with its acquisition. In 1764 the College published An Account of the College of New-Jersey (essentially a College brochure for potential investors), which mentions a “small, though exceedingly good organ” in its description of the College’s “elegant” hall. This document also notes that it was “obtained by a voluntary subscription” (p. 12).

It stands to reason that someone had to play this instrument. The musicologist Richard Crawford has taken this point even further stating “a congregation’s ownership of an organ implies the presence of a musician who could play it, which in turn suggests some degree of professionalism and the likelihood of some exposure to European traditions” (1990, p.22-3). Crawford here is discussing colonial organs in a very general sense, but it does lead one to wonder whether James Lyon was this musician. Lyon, after all, was an outspoken advocate of instrumental music in Reformed churches, at least according to the 1763 publication The Lawfulness, Excellency, and Advantage of Instrumental Musick in the Public Worship of God, which was published anonymously as “A Presbyterian” but has since been attributed to Lyon (Sonneck 1905, 131). There is no extant evidence, however, to support the notion that the Nassau Hall organ and James Lyon’s presence in Princeton are connected.

It is better to think of the confluence of James Lyon, Samuel Davies, and the Prayer Hall organ in Princeton not as casually linked, either to each other or to the 1759 and 1760 Commencement Odes, but rather as contributing to an environment where new music could be cultivated and performed.

“Cheerful, fearless, and at ease”

“Commonplace book: Smith, Jonathan Bayard, 1742-1813.”
“Commonplace book: Smith, Jonathan Bayard, 1742-1813.” (C0938 no. 481) Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

News of college commencements often made it into the major newspapers of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. These articles would include the names of the graduates, the quality of the speakers, and sometimes the names of Colonial leaders who were in attendance. On October 1st 1759, the New-York Mercury not only included a general description of the ceremony, but also the text of Davies’ and Lyon’s ode beginning “Cheerful, fearless, and at ease.” Given that the music still has not been found, this newspaper article has been our only source for this Commencement Ode. It is unclear from the article whether or not the text is complete; the final lines quoted are written “While Bernard makes the royal Virtues known, / In all their milder Charms. / Happy, &c. &c.”

In the course of my research in the Special Collections at Princeton, I came across an entry in Jonathan Bayard Smith’s Commonplace Book of 1742-1812 dated 1759, which included the same text as the New-York Mercury and attribution to President Samuel Davies. Smith almost certainly would have been in attendance at the ceremony in 1759, and was clearly impressed by Davies’ poetry, electing to write it in his notebook for posterity. Putting the texts side by side, it is clear that one is not the copy of the other. There are some small variations in spelling and punctuation, as well as a clear ending in Smiths copy of the anthem on the line “In all their milder Charms.” What immediately becomes obvious from the comparison, however, are the repetitions in the New-York Mercury publication. These repetitions perhaps give us a clue about Lyon’s musical setting. For example, looking at the chorus, Smith’s copy reads:

“We sing great George upon the throne
And Amherst brave in arms.”
While “Bernard in their milder charms,”
Makes the royal virtues known.”

There is a clearly musical iambic rhythm to the first three lines, which is thrown off slightly by the trochaic final line. In the New-York Mercury, this same passage is written:

We sing great GEORGE upon the throne,
And AMHERST brave in arms,
Amherst brave in arms;
While BERNARD, in their milder Charms,
Make the royal virtues known.

Here the second line is repeated as an echo, but shifted into a trochaic meter, which then serves to provide some balance to the troches of the final line which seemed more jarring in Smith’s copy. Given that this is also marked as a chorus in the New-York Mercury, and reads more as a song given the second line repetition, I suspect that it is a reflection of how Lyon set Davies’ words to music. Furthermore, the curious last line of the Mercury article (“Happy, &c. &c.”) simply conveys the repetition of the last verse of the ode. Until the score materialises, if it ever does, we shall have to be content with these small musical clues.

“Gentle Peace! With Mildest Rays”

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)

Lyon’s musical ode must have made a good impression the College trustees and other attendees of the 1759 commencement, since he ended up composing two more commencement odes the following year. These two pieces, an “Ode on Science” and an “Ode on Peace,” also made the papers after their performance on September 24th 1760. This time Davies’ words were not initially printed; the presence of Thomas Boone Esq., then Colonial Governor of New Jersey, was far more newsworthy. Nonetheless, the October 9th Pennsylvania Gazette still notes that the “Ode on Science” was performed at the end of the morning exercises, and the “Ode of Peace” concluded the day “to the universal Pleasure and Satisfaction of a numerous Auditory.” In May of the following yearthe words to the “Ode to Science” were published in the New-Hampshire Gazette.

Once again, the music for both odes is currently lost. It was not until the twentieth century that a broadside copy of “Ode to Peace” showed up in the Princeton University Library (pictured). Oscar Sonneck had speculated that this ode was the same as Lyon’s 1759 ode, but with the discovery of this broadside we know that this is not the case (Sonneck 1905, 126). Broadsides were ephemeral documents in the 18th century. Rather like pamphlets today, they were quickly and cheaply printed and often thrown away after use (Felcone 1991, 5). We have Caleb White (class of 1762) to thanks for the survival of this document. It is possible that this copy of “Ode on Peace” was made for whoever performed this ode, in which case the music may have taught orally (see also Sprague Smith 1980). Joseph Felcone has pointed out to me that the bottom of the document is missing, which would have probably included the printer’s information.

As with the 1759 piece, this ode to “Peace” exalts King George II and Great Britain’s military victories in the French and Indian War. It also pays some lip service to the British Captain General and Governor Thomas Boone since he was in attendance. For a young College in need of funds, these tributes were perhaps a tactical necessity. As I discuss in the section 1762-1763: Princeton and beyond, commencement odes in the 1760s are far from simple entertainments: rather, they are representative of the increasingly political environment of America’s first colleges. We cannot help but smile at the fact that many of the students who, in the early 1760s, has sung the glories of Great Britain would later be leading Patriots in the Revolutionary War.

We would be mistaken in thinking that Lyon’s 1759 ode was the first piece of music performed either at a College of New Jersey commencement or at any other colonial College. Ezra Stiles, when visiting the College before its relocation to Princeton, commented on the “melodious singing” by a chorus of men and women at the 1754 commencement ceremony. Kaufman has pointed out that for a Presbyterian congregation a mixed chorus of men and women is highly unusual. However, seeing as both men and women were admitted to singing schools, and given that this was a public and non-liturgical event, this is perhaps not as surprising as we might think (see Urania 1761 for singing school context). Either way, it is clear than music was a part of the College’s commencements from the very beginnings of the institution.

By this time in 1754, Harvard commencements had already garnered a reputation as lively public events. It seems unlikely that, in the heart of Puritan New England, singing of any kind would be encouraged. But in fact the singing of psalms was a common practice in Massachusetts from the seventeenth-century. We know from the diary of Samuel Sewall (1652-1729) that psalm singing was a part of commencement day celebrations in Harvard as early as 1685 (Winstead 2013, 19-20). By the turn of the 18th century, as J. Lloyd Winstead writes, Harvard commencements included a lot more than just psalm singing. A passerby on Harvard’s campus might hear a multitude of secular “convivial songs,” usually supplemented by drinking and dancing, and at night the raucous serenading choruses under tutors’ windows (2013, 22). It seems the stereotype of the fun-hating, humorless Puritan is largely a myth.

The first commencements at Yale, on the other hand, were far more modest. It seems that the scholars did not want the “country fair” atmosphere that had come to typify the Harvard celebrations, sticking to the singing of psalms (2013, 23). But even if singing was already an established part of commencement activities at the first American colleges, the composition of a new piece as an official part of the ceremony remains an innovative departure from the norm. In the next section, 1761: Urania, I will explore the broader musical culture in colonial America in the 1760s, looking particularly at Lyon’s greatest achievement: the first American tunebook Urania.