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Colonial mixtapes: music manuscript collections as a peephole into the past

A colonial New England context

Before beginning work under the Pforzheimer Fellowship, I hadn’t dealt with manuscripts much – certainly not in the amount of detail required to create a catalog entry. One thing I noticed is just how unique manuscript materials are. The Hubbard manuscript isn’t a collection of pieces, already existing in a set order, copied out one after the other by a dutiful scribe; it bears the marks of many hands and has a history of many years. It’s certainly not as straightforward as most of the printed texts you or I deal with most of the time!

MT870.W34 1746, seq. 162

MT870.W34 1746, seq. 162

The Hubbard manuscript is actually a series of additions to a print book: the 1746 edition of Thomas Walter’s popular and brief guide entitled The grounds and rules of musick explained: or, an introduction to the art of singing by note. Fitted to the meanest capacities. (Yes, that is the 18th-century way of saying “Reading music for dummies”.) The print book has only 25 pages of instruction, followed by 16 pages of tunes for practice and enjoyment – small enough to prompt aspiring singers to copy out their own selections and have them bound at the back of the book.

(You can see high-quality images of the entire book using the Harvard Library Viewer; you can see my catalog record of the manuscript portion in the RISM database.)

Colonial New England being what it was, all the tunes, both in the original print book and in the subsequent manuscript additions, were for sacred texts. Most of them were intended to be sung to metrical psalms, which were commonly sung in Puritan and Congregational churches of the time. Books such as Walter’s were created to help people learn to read music and sing in harmony and rhythm. Prior to this time, singing in church was a bit of a mess: the deacon would sing a line of psalm text (“lining it out”) to one of a few well-known tunes, and the members of the congregation would follow at their own pace and with their own ornamentation. It took forever, and wasn’t terribly true to the music of the psalm tunes. The music reformers of the day set out to fix this by systematically training people in musical literacy. Old habits die hard, however, and churches split over tension between the resulting factions. The introduction to Walter’s book is actually a defense of the New Way, as it was called – or perhaps it is more of a polemic against the “Old Way” – and its case is strengthened by recommendations from prominent New England ministers.

Thomas Hubbard served as deacon for Old South Church for 25 years, and as treasurer to Harvard College from 1752 to 1773. His daughter, Thankfull, was 14 years old at the time when she acquired the book: the present binding, which must have been of the print book together with (mostly?) blank manuscript pages, is tooled on the front with the words “THANKFULL HUBBARD 1759”. The front pastedown has the words “Thankfull Hubbard her Book 1759” in what is plausibly the hand of a fourteen-year-old.

MT870.W34 1746, front pastedown

MT870.W34 1746, seq. 2 (front pastedown)

It seems that 1759 was a big year for Thankfull. There is a record that the same year, she wore a hot-pink silk frock, presumably for the first time or for a special event. I discovered this by surprise, as I was researching Thankfull Hubbard, on the blog of Holly Gates – who currently owns the gown. (In fact, this gown resides in the same town as I do! Perhaps I will get the chance to see it this summer.)

Thankfull’s book

But to get back to the subject of Thankfull’s book: there are at least two portions to the manuscript component of the volume. The first contains mostly “plain” (homophonic) psalm and hymn tunes in various hands, including (in my judgment) those of Thomas Hubbard and Mary Jackson Hubbard, Thankfull’s parents. Many of the tunes have handsomely executed titles imitating the style of music engraving of the time; these may well have been copied out of one or more printed collections of psalm tunes. One tune has the name Thankfull Hubbard written next to it. This isn’t an attribution of authorship to either the text or the tune; both of these existed before Thankfull was born. Rather, she may have been pleased with her execution in copying out the tune and text – which is quite nicely done for a young amateur!

MT870.W34 1746, seq. 119

MT870.W34 1746, seq. 119

The other portion of the manuscript, which follows twelve blank pages, must have been copied after the death of Thankfull Leonard (as she became known after her marriage in 1770). The tunes in this section are still sacred vocal music, but they differ from the tunes before it in a number of ways:

  • Many of them are written using oval noteheads, while all those in the first section contained only diamond-shaped noteheads.
  • There are many fuging tunes by contemporary New England composers such as Daniel Read and Oliver Brownson, as opposed to old (anonymous) psalm tunes.
  • Many of the tunes have only the bass part copied out – surely not Thankfull’s customary voice part!

Intriguingly, the first tune in this section of the manuscript is William Billings’ “Funeral Anthem”. Might it have been a tribute to the deceased Mrs. Leonard? It would not be the only tribute following her death: the poet Phillis Wheatley wrote a funeral elegy addressed to her on the death of her husband in 1771 (“To Mrs. Leonard, on the Death of her Husband”), and less than two years later, she did the same on behalf of the recently deceased Thankfull (“To the Hon’ble Thomas Hubbard, Esq; on the death of Mrs. Thankfull Leonard”).

Tracing tunes through print and manuscript

Walter’s book must have been both easy to use and convenient to carry: besides the Hubbard manuscript, Harvard owns four other copies of Thomas Walter’s book that are bound with 18th-century manuscript music. Comparing multiple copies like this raises some questions about how and why people added to their books.

One thing that stood out to me was how similar many of these additions were to each other. For example, all five sets of manuscript additions I cataloged contain the tune “Standish”, in three parts. But it’s not just the tune that’s the same: the layout and often even the style of writing used in the title are similar. More interesting still, this layout often imitates the style of printed collections, such as A supplement to the New Version of the Psalms. This collection was often bound at the end of the commonly used metrical psalter by Tate and Brady and includes many of the tunes later appended to tunebooks; it was printed a number of times in Boston in the early 1750s. In fact, I have noticed mistakes, including a missing part in one tune that is replicated in the copy in Hubbard’s book. This doesn’t mean that Hubbard’s book was necessarily copied directly from this source, but they could easily have been part of the same network of tune transmission.

Other possible sources, this time for the later works in the Hubbard manuscript, are Harmonia Sacra compiled by Thomas Butts (not the more famous one by Joseph Funk, which came later) and The Chorister’s Companion compiled by Simeon Jocelin. A number of tunes in the second part of the Hubbard manuscript first appeared in print in The Chorister’s Companion (about ten years after Thankfull Hubbard died). Imagine the following scenario: a new tunebook comes out; you buy a copy; you want to sing one of the songs in it with friends, so you copy out your part at the end of your personal collection so other people can look at the book.

Looking at manuscript collections gives a look on an individual’s taste and habits, and when multiple collections are examined together, on the taste and habits of a whole community. Music is especially suited to this purpose. Music is a very personal thing; especially in the context of multiple-part vocal music, it must be used actively along with other people. Because of this, I’m looking forward to cataloging other music manuscript collections from other places and times.

This post was contributed by Micah Walter, a candidate for the PhD in historical musicology at Harvard University. Micah Walter has spent the summer cataloging eighteenth-century music miscellanies in the collections of Houghton Library and Isham Memorial Library. His records appear in RISM, an international music manuscript database which gives more detail than a HOLLIS record can and thus allows a deeper understanding of these materials and their context. The Pforzheimer Fellowship which brought Micah to the Harvard Library is the gift of Carl H. Pforzheimer III, a longtime benefactor of Harvard’s libraries and librarians.



  1. Nick Pappas

    Hi. This article states that Harvard owns four other copies of the Walter tunebook with manuscript additions. I could not locate these in the catalog. Are they available to the public? Are there digital scans of these collections as well perhaps online? Thanks for your time.

  2. Nym Cooke

    Hi, Nick and “loebmusic.” As part of my NERFC fellowship work, I’ve just completed a detailed inventory of all Harvard’s pre-1821 American sacred music, printed and manuscript–230 sources in five different libraries–and I can expand just a bit on the information in loebmusic’s impressive list, which I assume was derived from HOLLIS (Harvard’s online catalog). I’ll refer to the copies of Walter’s Grounds and Rules by the ends of their call numbers, and use loebmusic’s numbering (1-6).
    1. 721g also has MS. music inside its front cover; 721gb is actually a copy of the 2nd ed. of 1723, with lots of MS. music
    1.5. Houghton also has the 3rd ed. of 1740 (*AC7 W1717 721gc), with 2 MS. music entries
    2. 721gd has MS. music on 11, not 14 leaves
    3. 721gea is actually the [6th ed.], dated [1759?] in American Sacred Music Imprints
    4. 721ge has MS. music on 19, not 17 leaves
    5-6. nothing to add here
    My inventory–which now includes the holdings of ten major New England repositories–specializes in what makes individual copies of printed and manuscript tunebooks unique, including detailed info. on ownership inscriptions and MS. music entries. All its data will eventually be available in an online database, currently being constructed.

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