[Noah Webster:] An Oration on Music. [manuscript’s caption title]
“To awaken the passions, is in the power of Instruments…”
Late 18th or early 19th century essay on music with original content, though freely borrowing from the the text of Noah Webster’s essay “On Vocal Music” which was first published in 1787 in the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper in Philadelphia and revised in 1788 (American Magazine) and then collected in a book in 1790.¹
The anonymous essayist addresses a sympathetic audience, possibly a learned society or a social club: “As this branch of science [music] hath been the employment of a respectable part of this assembly for a few months past—it will be the subject of the present discourse.” (p2) The essayist rehearses Biblical precedents for music, choirs (women and men), and harmony and discusses the poets Homer and Milton.
When the subject turns to the teaching of music, the formation of singing schools, and instrumental music (p6ff), the author relies on Noah Webster to advance the argument. Though not verbatim plagiarizing, the texts are very close. Here is what Webster writes in 1787:
“The human mind is formed for activity; and will ever be employed in business or diversions. Children are perpetually in motion, and all the ingenuity of their parents and guardians should be exerted to devise methods for restraining this active principle, and directing it to some useful object, or to harmless trifles. If this is not done, their propensity to action, even without a vicious motive, will hurry them into follies and crimes. Every thing innocent, that attracts the attention of children, and will employ their minds in leisure hours, when idleness might otherwise open the way to vice, must be considered as a valuable employment. Of this kind is vocal music. ... Instrumental music may exceed vocal in some nice touches and distinctions of sound; but when regarded as to its effects upon the mind and upon society, it is as inferior to vocal, as sound is inferior to sense. ... Instrumental music affords an agreeable amusement; and as an amusement it ought to be cultivated. But the advantage is private and limited; it pleases the ear, but leaves no impression upon the heart. The design of music is to awaken the passions, to soften the heart for the reception of sentiment. To awaken passion is within the power of instruments, and this may afford a temporary pleasure; but society derives no advantage from it, unless some useful sentiment is left upon the heart.”
The present writer instead pens:
“The human mind is formed for activity & must be employed, everything innocent that attracts the attention of youth, and will employ their minds in leisure hours; when idleness otherwise might open the way to vice, must be considered as a valuable employment. Of this kind is the study of music. I have thus far considered music, Instrumental & Vocal. It is proper we should make a distinction. Instrumental, may in some nice touches and distinctions of sound, exceed Vocal, but, when regarded as to affect upon the mind, it is vastly inferior to vocal as sound is inferior to sense. Instrumental affords an agreeable amusement & as such ought to be cultivated. But the advantages is private & limited, it pleases the ear, but leaves no impression on the heart. The design of Music, is to awaken the passions to the reception of sentiment. To awaken the passions, is in the power of Instruments; but society derives no advantage, unless some useful sentiments are left on the heart—this leads me to the advantages derived to Society from this Science.” (p8)
The manuscript’s additional three pages contain other examples of further observations by Webster, albeit re-worked by the essayist for their audience.
An interesting and likely unpublished oration that reflects a public, even social, discourse on music. An opportunity to study the reception of Noah Webster’s essay, “On Vocal Music,” which was published several times in the late 18th century —here so curiously intertwined.
Description: [Noah Webster:] An Oration on Music. [manuscript’s caption title]
[Likely America, c.1790s–1810s?]. ff comprising 14 manuscript pages; a fair copy. Approx. 8 x 6½ inches. Coarse paper wrappers with wove paper leaves; sewn. Some staining to wrappers; vertical center crease; foxing and toning; Very Good.
Note. 1. As early as 1771, when Webster was about 13, he wrote publicly about musical activities of his church group in a letter in the Connecticut Courant (August 21). Worth mentioning: “The Whistling Plowman,” i.e. The Whistling-Plowman, a New Hunting Song, a fairly obscure piece of sheet music, first appearing circa 1760 and published as late as 1800, is mentioned near the essay’s conclusion. See Webster, A Collection of Essays and Fugitive Writings (Boston, 1790), pp229–230.