From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 46, No. 3, September 2010
The exhibit celebrating the 300th anniversary of the First Church of Christ in Mansfield contains considerable information about the church’s musical heritage and its very popular singing schools. Below is an excerpt from Almira Hibbard’s unpublished manuscript, describing her life in Eagleville in the 1850s – mid 1860s. It includes this delightful description of a typical singing school. Her family attended church in nearby Coventry.
We wish to go to Singing-school this winter but how can we go. Father has an old horse and sleigh but he will not let Anna or I drive through the lonely wood a distance of two miles these winter nights. But the question is solved in this way. Mr. Thrall will hire a driver if his girls can ride with us, so Mr. Woodrough is hired. He is one of those men who is said to be able to manage a horse from his own infancy and so Father trusts him to drive for us. We dare not tell of the performances Old Frank, our horse, is taught. We drive up to the door of our church at a fearful rate. I hold on to the seat for I sit with the driver and am afraid we shall be thrown out… And when we are ready to go home Old Frank comes to the door where he rears and prances as we tumble into the sleigh and at a sign, starts off on the gallop. We are afraid Frank will get away but as soon as the other sleighs are passed he sobers down into a slow trot.
We dare not tell Father for we know that would end our Singing-school but when we drive to church Frank suddenly starts into a brisk canter just at the place where Mr. Woodrough usually touches him up and as he does this Sabbath after Sabbath, Mother says that she believes Frank sees something here which frightens him and her eyes vainly search for the scare. And when Frank “shows off” at the church door she wonders what has got into the horse. Anna and I look very soberly at each other. But to the singing-school we go where is warmth and light and harmony.
Our church is full. There are groups of girls here and there chatting merrily. Young men around the stove in their corner who have notebooks under their arm but who are now laughing boisterously. We girls wonder what they find so funny. In the rear seats are many young couples who are said to be courting…
Now we see an old bachelor, the violinist come in with his violin box in one hand and leading by the other his little niece Mary… there is an unusual rustle round the men’s door and a short man with cap pulled down over his eyes and whose long shaggy overcoat nearly reaches to his feet, enters and the groups begin to dissolve and take their accustomed seats. The master divests himself of cap and coat and stands warming himself by the fire. Conversation is now carried on in whispers and a loud buzz fills the room. We are in the main young singers.
It seems but a moment and we hear the twang of violin strings as the Master snaps them with his thumb, “Class in order” and we see him standing in front of us with his violin held to his breast with his right hand while at the same time he is twanging the strings. He says to our bachelor friend “Give me the key” then he puts his own violin to his shoulder draws the bow but they do not accord and we smile as he tightens the strings. Again he speaks, “Try again” this time it is better but while the tuning is going on the door opens and in comes a cross-eyed man with a bass viol in a great green case. “Old Hammond with his thunderer” we whisper and we notice that the Master looks at the violinist and winks. Then he raps with the back of his bow on a seat, says sternly “Order” but at the same time his eyes twinkle. He advances with his violin under his left arm, toward Mr. Hammond shakes hands cordially as he says “Your instrument in tune?” And then there is another tuning time. Mr. Hammond finds it almost impossible to chord and he tightens and loosens the strings till we get impatient and there are many very uncomplimentary remarks from the boys in the farther corner… At last there is perfect chord and the Master turns the leaves of a book to find a tune with which we are familiar… Then the key is given and we all sing… The arched ceiling causes our voices to echo and escaping to the open air harmonious sounds go upward. It is really praise for every word is uttered with a full sense of its meaning by us who only a moment before were idly whispering.
Now the Master says “You have done so well we will try an old tune, so old that most of you never heard it”… Its signature is three sharps the time natural. Mr. Madison raises his bow as he says “All must beat time for you will need to be very exact for it is a fugue tune,” “Down, left, right up” is repeated and every hand moves in unison. Some have not noticed that the first note is a whole note and so we come to a stop. Mr. Madison laughs as he remarks “I thought you could sing at least the first note but now try again,” so we sing while we beat down, left, right, up, and then we go on grandly through till we reach a rest, but we fail to strike the treble at the right instant. The master looks displeased as he puts his violin under his arm and for as many as five minutes he keeps us beating time then he says “We will play while the whole class talk the tune.” Then we again try by note and this time succeed.
So the hour goes by and recess comes. Ten minutes soon pass and again we are Master and scholars. Anthems are sung and at last the bass break down completely on the Hymn Anthem “Awake our souls.” Mr. Madison looks perplexed but we try again and again the bass do not chord, then the Master says as he turns to Mr. Hammond “Your instrument is too heavy for the piece” then to the class “Sing alone” and so they do and reach the end harmoniously, for the discord was not made by the singers but by the Mr. Hammond.
As a closing piece we rise and sing Old Hundred. How grandly the notes arise and as we go out into the night it seems as if a benediction rested on us.