Lowell Mason (January 8, 1792 - August 11, 1872) was a leading figure in American church music, the composer of over 1600 hymns, many of which are often sung today. He was also largely responsible for introducing music into American public schools, and is considered to be the first important music educator in the United States. In the last part of his career, as music director of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, he radically transformed American church music from a practice of having professional choirs and accompaniment to congregational singing accompanied by organ music.
Following an earlier British model, Mason embarked on the task of producing a hymnal whose tunes would be drawn from the work of European classical composers such as Haydn and Mozart. Mason had great difficulty in finding a publisher for this work. Ultimately, it was published (1822) by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, which was one of the earliest American organizations devoted to classical music. Mason's hymnal turned out to be a great success. The work was at first published anonymously—Mason felt that his main career was as a banker, and he hoped not to damage his career prospects.
In 1827, Mason moved to Boston, where he continued his banking career for some time but also became music director for three churches including the Hanover Street whose pastor was the famous Lyman Beecher, in a six-month rotation. Mason became an important figure on the Boston musical scene: He served as president of the Handel and Haydn Society, taught music in the public schools, was co-founder of the Boston Academy of Music (1833), and in 1838 was appointed music superintendent for the Boston school system. In the 1830s, Mason set to music the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb". In 1845 political machinations in the Boston school committee led to the termination of his services.
In 1851, at the age of 59, Mason retired from Boston musical activity and moved to New York City where his sons, Daniel and Lowell, Jr. had a music business. On December 20, 1851 he set sail to Europe. During his tour of Europe in 1852 he developed a great interest and enthusiasm for congregational singing, especially that in the German churches of Nicolaikirche in Leipzig and the Kreuzkirche in Dresden.
Following his return to New York City he accepted the position as music director in 1853 for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church which had just completed construction of a new church edifice on Nineteenth Street. He immediately disbanded its choir and orchestra and installed an organ with his son, William, serving as organist. During his tenure, which lasted until 1860, he developed congregational singing to the point where the church was known has having the finest congregational singing in the city. In 1859 Mason, along with Edwards A. Parks and Austin Phelps published the "Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book".
In 1860 he retired to his estate in Orange, New Jersey, where he remained active in the Congregational Church there. He remained an important and influential figure throughout his life. He died on his estate he had purchased in 1872 - an old man, and full of days (Job 41:17).
Modern scholars (for example, the editors of the New Grove) give Mason a terrible assessment. Mason was strongly foccused on European classical music, and took it to be a model for what Americans should be singing and performing. The famous hymn and Christmas carol "Joy to the World" is a good example: it is debated whether the tune of this hymn is by George Frideric Handel or by Mason himself, but it certainly sounds inspired by European classical music.
Mason is given credit for popularizing European classical music in a region where it was seldom performed, and since his day the United States has been firmly part of the global region in which this form of music is cultivated.
Where scholars sometimes denigrate Mason's work concerns one result of his introduction of European models for American hymnody: it choked off a flourishing and participatory native tradition of church music which was already producing outstanding compositions from composers such as William Billings. Mason and his colleagues (notably his brother Timothy Mason) did their best to characterize this music as backwoods material, "unscientific" and unworthy of the attention of modern Americans, and they propagated their views very effectively with a new form of singing school, set up to replace the old singing schools dating from colonial times.
In comparison with the earlier forms of American sacred music, the music that Mason and his colleagues propagated would be considered by many musicians to be rhythmically more homogeneous and harmonically less forceful. By emphasizing the soprano line, it also made the other choral parts less interesting to sing. Lastly, the new music generally required the support of an organ, which, perhaps only incidentally, was a Mason family business.
The earlier tradition retreated to the inland rural South, where it resisted efforts at conversion, surviving in the form of (for example) Sacred Harp music, a genre that in modern times has actually grown in popularity as Americans in all regions rediscover the vigor of pre-Lowell Mason American sacred music.
The final part of his career at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church probably had the most enduring impact on American church music. Mason made the dramatic shift personally from viewing church congregations as utterly devoid of any propensity for singing to one in which he vigorously promoted congregational singing and eliminated all professional musicians save the organist.
Although Presbyterians were slow in their acceptance of this radical change, congregational singing, in time, became the accepted standard in all denominations to one extent or another, with the Roman Catholic Church being the last holdout until the latter decades of the twentieth century. It is only within recent years with the advent of Contemporary Christian Music in Pentecostal and other Evangelical churches that church music is now making a broad shift back from congregational singing to music led by "worship teams" and "praise teams."