The University of Mississippi

Music 526: Music in the United States

Samuel Sewall on Psalmody

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) was one of the judges at the witch trials in Massachusetts Bay, though he lived to regret it. He also had the regular duty of keying and "setting" the psalm (choosing a tune of the appropriate meter, and leading the singing of it) in the meeting house. His diary reports his failures:

"[Dec. 28, 1705] [The preacher] spake to me to set the Tune; I intended Windsor, and fell into High-Dutch, and then essaying to set another Tune, went into a Key much too high. So I pray'd Mr. White to set it; which he did well, Litchf[ield] Tune. The Lord humble me and Instruct me, that I should be occasion of any Interruption in the Worship of God."
"[July 5, 1713] I try'd to set Low-Dutch Tune and fail'd. Try'd again and fell into the tune of 119th Psalm."
"[Feb. 6, 1715] This day I set Windsor Tune, and the people at the 2d going over [i.e. verse] run into Oxford, do what I could."
"[Feb. 2, 1718] In the Morning I set York Tune, and in the 2d going over, the Gallery carried it irresistibly to St. David's, which discouraged me very much. I spake earnestly to Mr. White to set it in the Afternoon, but he declines it. P.M. The Tune went well."
"[Feb. 23, 1718] I set York Tune, and the Congregation went out of it into St. David's in the very 2d going over. They did the same 3 weeks before. This is the 2d Sign. I think they began in the last line of the first going over. This seems to me an intimation and call for me to resign the Praecentor's Place to a better voice. I have through the divine Long-suffering and Favour done it for 24 years, and now God by his Providence seems to call me off, my voice being enfeebled. I spake to Mr. White earnestly to set it in the Afternoon, but he declin'd it. After the Exercises, I went to Mr. Sewall's, Thank'd Mr. Prince for his very good Discourse: and laid the matter before them, told them how long I had set the Tune. Mr. Prince said, Do it Six years longer. I persisted and said that Mr. White or Franklin might do it very well."
"[Mar. 2, 1718] I told Mr. White the elders desired him, he must Set the Tune; he disabled himself, as if he had a Cold. But when the Psalm was appointed, I forbore to do it, and rose up and turn'd to him, and he set York Tune to a very good Key. I thank'd him for restoring York Tune to its Station with so much Authority and Honor. I was glad; I saw twas convenient that I had resign'd, being for the benefit of the congregation."

Those who must lead and key the music in a struggling class can doubtless feel sympathy for the aged judge.

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