The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 2, 1999


Treasures from Carlisle's Past: Early Music and Musical Instruments

In early New England music accompanied the marching of the militia, enhanced services at the meetinghouses and provided enjoyment at home and at social gatherings. Musical instruments and songbooks in the Carlisle historical collections reflect the role of music in the lives of our ancestors.

Recreations of Patriot's Day bring to mind the stirring music of fife and drum. Among the artifacts on the third floor of Gleason Library is a piece of wood labeled, "a Piece of the old North Bridge," but no musical instruments from that period. However, two drums from the Civil War represent military music of the past. Both were used during the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. One, a Union drum, was used on the second and third days; the other, a Rebel drum, was used on the first and second days. These are part of the extensive collection of Gettysburg relics, donated to Carlisle by W. Irving Heald who also provided a printed catalogue of the 109 items. In August 1916 Mr. Heald wrote to the Library Trustees:" I, a son of Carlisle, wish to offer to the town as a free gift a collection of relics from the Battlefield of Gettysburg, to be placed on exhibition in the Public Library. The relics and cabinet will weigh about one thousand pounds and could best be moved by team." [quoted in Sidney Bull, History of the Town of Carlisle, 1973 reprint, p. 116.]

The drums, with painted decorations, provide a contrast to the numerous shot, shells and bullets which were collected from the 25 square-mile area surrounding Gettysburg.

By the time of the Civil War, music had already become an integral part of worship services and social gatherings. The Puritans, breaking with the Anglican traditions, sought simpler forms of worship. Nonetheless, they incorporated singing in their early worship services. The so-called Bay Psalm Book, published in Cambridge in 1640, was used extensively throughout New England. Long before Carlisle became a town, its inhabitants were undoubtedly chanting traditional hymns at the First Parish in Concord and other surrounding "parent" towns.

At first, the psalms would be "lined-out" by the deacon, with the congregation repeating the words and tune. Notes were not incorporated into the hymnal until 1698.

A leading American composer, William Billings (1746-1800) introduced the use of the pitch-pipe and also promoted the use of stringed instruments to accompany religious singing.

Concord, Bedford and Carlisle all used viols in their services. As early as 1815, the Carlisle March Town Meeting contained a warrant article "to see if the town will buy a bass viol to be kept in the Meeting house for the purpose of aiding the singing." Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins in Carlisle: Its History and Heritage records that the article was voted down and no record of such a purchase exists. Since she does note expenses for repair of two viols in the Parish expenses between 1838-1840 we may assume that parishioners did find a way to finally incorporate these into their service.

We do know that the First Religious Society purchased a melodeon or seraphine, a small organ, for $75 in 1854. This reed instrument was kept at the home of Timothy Wilkins, who lived on the corner of present-day Acton and Westford Streets. Mr. Wilkins would bring it to church each Sunday. Its operation required two people. One person needed to "pump" the bellows with air (the air "blowing" over the reeds to produce the sound), while the other pressed the keys. The Carlisle Historical Society now owns this melodeon. Originally, the instrument sat on a stand, now gone. It has four octaves, with distinctively short keys. Most interesting is the label on the original box. The complete wording is reproduced in the notebooks of Mrs. Benson Wilkins and reads:

Abraham Prescott & Son

Manufacturers of Seraphines and Melodions (sic)

Premium Bass and Double Bass Viols

And dealers in

Musical instruments,

Umbrellas, Parasols, etc. etc.

Instruments and Umbrellas repaired at short notice,

And warranted.

Opposite the Columbian Hotel, Concord, N. H.

Care should be taken in blowing the melodion to give

A steady pressure, as a sudden motion will produce an uneven tone.

Apparently not only tone, but stability, was dependent on the smooth pumping of the bellows. Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins indicates that "When the bellows were filled with air, the keyboard and top surface tilted first to the right and then to the left, but when fully inflated by skillful and steady pumping, it could be kept fairly level." [Carlisle: Its History and Heritage, 1976, p. 187.]

Today, people of all ages attend a variety of musical events and concerts. This tradition began with Boston's first public concert, held in 1731. "Singing schools" became popular means of perfecting religious choral singing during the 18th century. There is record of one such school existing in Concord in the early 19th century. Perhaps Carlisle young people participated in these musical gatherings which provided a "socially acceptable" means for young men and young women to meet in public. Diaries and journals of Concordians mention music and dancing as popular means of entertainment throughout the 19th century.

Other musical items in the collections might have been used in homes and at concerts. These include a very small "Jew's" Harp, a tuning fork belonging to Dr. Austin Marsh, and several hymnals and song books. The Marsh family was quite musical. In addition to Marsh's medical instruments, there is a music book entitled The Easy Instructor, published in 1798, and the book Psalms and Hymns by Isaac Watts, which belonged to Mary W. (Skelton) Marsh. Dr. and Mrs. Marsh fostered the love of music in their children. One daughter, Mary Amanda Marsh Reynolds, became church organist in Lowell and Carlisle. Three granddaughters (children of Susie S. Marsh Morse) became members of a prestigious Ladies Philharmonic orchestra.

Several more modern songbooks and concert programs document the musical events and groups that have performed in Carlisle during the early years of this century. As contemporary townspeople enjoy listening to music or creating it vocally or instrumentally, they are following in the tradition begun early in the town's history.

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito