Mattie Robertson revisited

On June 23, 2014, I wrote about Mattie Robertson, composer/arranger and choir director of Chicago’s First Baptist Congregational Church.  Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting her when the FBCC choir came to my home church, Broadway Christian in Columbia, MO.  Her neice, Rachel Griffin took the picture of Mattie and me.  Thanks Rachel, for the photo and for bringing this treasure to my attention.


Julia Fletcher Carney gets the credit

It occasionally happens that women will use male pseudonyms in order to get recognized in the arts.  Sometimes their works are attributed to men, whether by accident (for example, A.P. Carter getting the credit for Maybelle Carter’s songs) or sometimes the deception is intentional.  The latter situation existed for the work of Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney.  So what’s the story?

Julia Fletcher was born in 1823 in Lancaster Massachusetts.  Though she showed a talent for writing when quite young, her mother discouraged this as she felt it wouldn’t help her as an adult.   But Julia came down with scarlet fever when she was eight and was homebound for several years.  She spent the time writing when not reading.  By 14, she was sending poems to local papers.  At age 19, she worked as a teacher and continued teaching until she married Thomas Carney, a Universalist minister, in 1849.  They moved out west where four of their children died during the western years.   She and the surviving three children went back east to Illinois after Rev. Carney’s death in 1871.  She continued to write prose and poetry as well as short sketches. She wrote for Universalist and other periodicals, and many of her poems were set to music and published as hymns.  By the time she died in 1908, she knew her works were quoted and had inspired hymns.

“Little Drops of Water” was written as a ten minute writing assignment in a teachers’ summer program she attended in Boston.  This was added as filler to a previously written article to be published in a paper “A Letter to Sabbath School Children”.   This poem has been used by many people, but one notable use was at the opening of the British Red Cross in 1845.  It reminded the audience that little things mattered.  It has been cited by world leaders and in a Nobel Prize speech.  In her later years, Carl Sandburg was her next door neighbor.  He said of her, “She loved children and wrote poems she hoped children would love.”

For many years, this poem, set to a French folk song, was attributed to Rev. E. Cobham Brewer (1810-1897).  In addition to his fame as sporting a great beard, he compiled many dictionaries, and as a known writer, he published “Little Drops of Water” as his own.   But since Julia Fletcher had published the poem in 1845, three years before Brewer claimed authorship, she eventually got the credit.

As a side note, I had occasion to deal with “Whispering Hope” in a performance.  It was allegedly written by Alice Hawthorne, but this was a pseudonym for Mr. Septimus Winner.  It’s quite a twist to see the gender switch going the other way around!

A. Irma Cohon – Rebbitzin Hymnist

At my church’s recent annual charity garage sale, I found an oddity, a Jewish hymnal!  When I told a Jewish friend, she was just as perplexed as I.  This had to be explored.  It was titled The Jewish Song Book Third edition, compiled for Synagogue, school and home, covering the complete Jewish religious year.  It was composed, compiled and arranged for unison congregational singing and for solo and choir with organ or piano accompaniment using Israel’s religious folksong: the traditional Synagogue modes and melodies.   It was issued to serve the “remnant” of Jewry after World War II, as a united voice of Israel in traditional sacred song.  The book is unclear, but it apparently originally contained music by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn (1882-1938).  However, this third edition was enlarged and revised in 1951.  Some of the hymns were by A. Irma Cohon and she was the editor. So who is she?

Angie Irma Reinhart was born in Portland Oregon in 1890, educated at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and got her degree in 1912 from the University of Cincinnati.  Immediately thereafter, she married Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon who also attended the Hebrew Union College while studying for a degree at the University of Cincinnati.  They had one son, Baruch Joseph.  Irma’s brother, Harold Reinhart, was a prominent liberal rabbi in London, England.  Irma was known as a Rebbetzin (wife of a Rabbi or a female religious teacher – she was both) and as a publisher.  Her book, Introduction to Jewish Music, the first book on this subject in English, came out in 1923, much sooner than A.Z. Idelsohn’s 1929 book, which sometimes gets credit for being first.  She collaborated with Idelsohn, a Hebrew Union College music professor, on various projects.  Obviously, she respected him.  The Jewish Song Book I found expanded Idelsohn’s work, and added the works of others, primarily Cohon’s translations, adaptations, and original works.  She not only outlived Idelsohn, but did so in a big way.  She died at age 100 in 1991.

In looking into the hymns and songs in the book, I found several of interest.   “Purim Song”, as you would guess, is to celebrate Purim, which was March 12-13 this year (2017), “Sabbath’s Balm” has a more spiritual theme, the healing balm and living waters of Sabbath.  “In His Unfathomed Ways” renders praise and prayer to the Rock of Israel, the Lord of Hosts.  Her metaphors, similes and language sound quite familiar to this Christian’s ears.  The most endearing song to me is “Yesterday’s Bubble” noted to be for Purim, but which sounds very current and for any day:  “If I should assume importance  . . .  and by posing, should convince you that I am a handsome man, don’t believe me. . . If I play the man of riches . . .  Don’t believe me.  If I seem to shower money and acquire a mighty name, and by reason of my greatness, seem to set the world aflame, don’t believe me.  If I pose as mighty learned and my wisdom I confess, if I am forever prating of my great broadmindedness, Don’t believe my airs and boasting, do not trust a word I say.”    Somehow, I wasn’t thinking of Haman when reading this

Light Dawns for Lent

At a recent retreat for women at my church, I heard “Light Dawns on a Weary World” for the first time.  Unlike so many soul numbing repetitive hymn texts today, it had content.  I had to look up more information on it.  But first, the text writer:  Mary Louise Bringle has a PhD in from Emory University and has taught philosophy, religious studies and French and has chaired the humanities division at Brevard College in Brevard NC.  On Sundays, she teaches an adult class at her local Presbyterian Church.   She has several publications on pastoral theology to her credit, and has translated Spanish language hymns into English.  She began to write hymn texts as a supposed heretic would write, in order to challenge her students.  But one day a former student asked her to write a text for a tune he wrote for his wedding.  Now she had to get serious about writing actual hymn texts. Apparently God meant for her to do this.  Just like solid modern text writers Ruth Duck and Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, she wrote the text for tunes composed by others that challenge and illuminate.  And this is from what can only be a feminist point of view for like them, she is seeks to be gender inclusive. She has won many hymn writing contests and the Hymn Society in the US and Canada named her an “emerging text writer”.

“Light Dawns on a Weary World” was written in 2001.  She wrote out its story in an article in The Hymn in Autumn, 2006.   You can read the story in her own words at,%20Light%20Dawns%20on%20a%20Weary%20World.pdf . For a quick version, here goes:  When the Hymn Society met in 2001, composer William Rowan wrote and played a new melody for her and as she said, “It was love at first listen.”  The words came to her that evening.  One of the bars has a sixteenth note run that reminded her of water in a fountain.  She found the chapters from Isaiah written when Cyrus of Persia released the Jewish captives to return to Judah.  “. . . you will be like a well-watered garden. . “ (Is. 58:11).  Before that she found Isaiah 55:12:  “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace”.  The words fell into place with the melody.  The words reflect Isaiah’s vision of a beloved community for all peoples.  After publication, she got feedback from several music directors that the hymn was particularly appropriate for Lent, a season of waiting for new hope in a weary life.  And so I write this article at the beginning of Lent.

Iconoclast Mary Brahe’s Home

Though I covered Mary Brahe in Sisters in Song, I gave her only a cursory glance.  I hope to remedy this.  Mary Dickson was born in East Melbourne, Australia in 1884 to an Australian cordial manufacturer and his Scottish wife.  Her mother Margaret taught piano to May, as she was known.  Alas, the mother died when May was 12, and three years later, she had to leave school due to economic hardship and earn a living teaching piano.  All the while, she continued to take private lessons with other more accomplished musicians.  After marrying Frederick Brahe in 1903 when she was 19, she continued to pursue her music career, playing, writing and publishing her compositions.  Her publishers encouraged her to go to London to further her status as a composer.  In a move unusual for the time, she left her three young children with her husband and grandmother and went to London in 1912.  By 1914, she earned enough to visit Australia and bring her family to England.   In 1919, soon after returning from service in World War I, Frederick Brahe was killed in an auto accident.    Three years later, she married fellow Australian, George Morgan with whom she had a daughter.  She finally returned to Melbourne, Australia in 1939 living well from song royalties.  She was in fact the only Australian woman composer to win international recognition before World War II.


Her publishers arranged regular concerts of her songs and ballads.  After the original publishers were bought out by another firm, she was one the few composers they paid on an annual retainer.  She continued to publish over 400 songs.   They were often published under one of nine pseudonyms.  This was necessary as most publishers didn‘t want to publish more than four songs of any one writer in a year.  She worked with many lyricists, but was most successful with Englishwoman Helen Taylor, her favorite collaborator in both songs and in two of her three musicals.  In addition to the songs and musicals, she wrote two operettas for children.   It was with Taylor that she wrote “Bless This House” which was originally published as “Bless the House” in 1927. Tenor John McCormack changed the title to the one we know today.  This melodic and sentimental song became famous over the world and has been recorded by the likes of Jan Peerce, Doris Day, Perry Como, and Leontyne Price among many others.  It seems ironic that the woman who composed a song in praise of the God-centered family home was brave enough to leave family for two years to pursue a career in a still Victorian influenced age.

Amy Beach, Victorian Feminist?

In my last post, I wrote of Paul’s exhortation to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  I had many hymns and spiritual songs by women to choose from, but little in the way of psalms.  I shall remedy that.

Amy Marcy Cheney was New Hampshire born, the only child in a very proper Victorian era household in 1867.  Her father was a paper importer and manufacturer and a Freewill Baptist. Her mother was an amateur singer and pianist and a Calvinist Congregationalist.  It was with mother that she attended Sunday School.  Amy was unusually gifted with musical talent.  At one year, she could hum 40 tunes in key, and that was before she could speak.  At age two, she could improvise counter-melody to anything her mother sang.  At three, she taught herself to read. By age four, she composed music in her head.  She wanted desperately to play the piano, but her mother thought otherwise for to indulge that would undermine parental authority.  Nevertheless, Amy composed mentally, saved up the compositions in her mind, and by the age of six, her parents relented.  She took formal lessons with her mother.  In the folkways of that era, middle and upper class women were rejected from careers in music.  Again, strong willed Amy, beginning at age seven, was able to give public recitals of works by the masters and her own works.  When the family moved to the Boston area in 1875, her parents allowed her training under local piano masters.  At age fourteen, she received some formal training in composition, but other than one year of this, she was self-taught.  Her concert debut in 1883 was well received by critics and audiences.

In 1885, she married Dr. H.H. Beach, a Boston surgeon 24 years older than she and she changed her name on concert programs to Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.  He thought it improper for a married woman to support herself, so she gave any profits from concerts to charity and agreed to never teach piano.  Under her husband’s insistence, she spent more ladylike time in composition without any instruction, though she believed she was primarily a pianist.   She collected every book she found on composition and theory and trained herself.

Her first truly major success was a Mass in E-flat major in 1892.   The newspaper music critics placed her into the upper rank of American composers.  It was the first piece composed by a woman performed by the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra, and through this, she was the first American woman to compose and publish a symphony. However, critics did go to great lengths to relate her compositions to her gender.  It wasn’t until 1898 that critics stopped doing this.   Doctor Beach died in 1910, and her mother shortly thereafter.  Childless Amy went to Europe to recover from her grief and there she changed her name to Amy Beach.  There she resumed giving concerts to great acclaim.  Upon return to the United States in 1914, she continued to compose. In 1930, she became the composer in residence at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York where she found her music used in the previous years had been attributed to her husband.  “Mrs.” was added to the name from 1931 on.   Since her husband was no longer in the picture, she was able to teach.  In addition she was a speaker and performer for such places as the University of New Hampshire, created “Beach Clubs” to teach children in music, and was the first president of the Society of American Women Composers. She became a virtual composer-in-residence at St. Bartholomew’s Protestant Episcopal Church in New York.  After her death in 1944 from heart disease, her work became neglected and unused until the 1990s and the rise of feminism.  She wrote over 300 works and published most of them. About a third have been recorded, but there is no known recording by her.  Today, many of her works have returned to the concert stage.   The American classical Music Hall of Fame honored her in 1999.

The psalm music she wrote and which I previously referred to was “Festivale Jubilate”, commissioned to dedicate the Women’s Building of the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago.  She wrote it in 1892 at the age of 17.   The music is now in the public domain.  Her SATB arrangement is freely available online.  The words are taken directly from the entirety of Psalm 100.  The religious theme no doubt came from her deeply held beliefs.  Her sacred works remained in the repertory of church choirs even when her other works were ignored.

Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs and Women

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Ephesians 5:19 (NIV).

And so the letter to the Ephesians exhorts those early Christians to sing.  Colossians 3:16 has a similar exhortation.  Matthew and Mark report Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before going to the Mount of Olives.  So what are these three types of sacred music and what role did women  play in them?   Psalms are fairly easy to figure out.  They are of course, from the Psalms, which by the time of Paul, were those 150 poems found today in both the Christian and Hebrew scripture.  The word is from the Greek meaning “instrumental music” and by extension, “words accompanying the music”.  Psalms were meant to be accompanied by stringed instruments such as the harp, lyre, or lute.  Even today, Psalms, or excerpts from Psalms are put to more modern music. This summer, I observed the monks of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky chanting Psalms accompanied by a pipe organ.  They manage to chant the entire 150 Psalms during a two week cycle.  But modern Psalms can also be adapted to even more modern accompaniment and additional lyrics.  Amy Grant’s “Thy Word” from Psalm 119:105 comes to mind.

A psalm can be a hymn, but hymns go beyond that.  The word comes from the Greek word, “hymnos” which means a song of praise to gods or heroes. Indeed, Sappho (c.620b.c.  to c.565b.c.), a Greek pagan woman, wrote hymns long before Christ. She may be the earliest known hymnist.   Of course, hers were hymns of praise to her pagan gods and Greek heroes.  But my book and blog focus on music and hymns in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  So I will skip ahead.  Obviously, if Christ sang hymns, they existed in the Jewish tradition.   Hymns are formal and traditional songs to be sung in public by congregations in praise of God.   Traditional hymns have a defined rhythm such as  The hymns are lyrics. The melodies to the lyrics are often interchangeable.  Since congregational singing of hymns was unknown until the Reformation, hymns today are much more recent than the Psalms.  Women took it and ran with it.  The most noted hymn writer in history is probably Fanny Crosby (1820 to 1915) who wrote over 8000 hymns.  How much more can a hymn praise God than Crosby’s “Praise Him, Praise Him”? Though it seems most modern church music today has irregular rhythms, there are still contemporary women writing hymns along traditional lines.  Ruth Duck and Carolyn Winfrey Gillette have written many hymns and still write hymn lyrics that fit into traditional  well known metrical tunes.

This then leads to the question of “spiritual songs”.  How are they different than hymns?  I assume the Ephesians and Colossians thought they were different or the two extra words would have been extraneous.  The term could be even broader in meaning than just a hymn.  Of course, Psalms and hymns are spiritual songs for they have a spiritual theme, but now the net is thrown out to include spontaneous songs (think of the African-American spirituals, including Harriet Tubman’s “Go Down, Moses”), short snippets of praise as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:15 (“I will sing with my spirit but I will also sing with my mind”), and non-metrical songs.  Today’s praise music appears to come within the purview of “spiritual songs”.  Women are even more a part of this than of traditional hymns.  Doris Akers comes from the African-American spiritual experience and refashioned the format into wonderful songs such as “Sweet, Sweet Spirit”, “Lead Me, Guide Me” and “Lord, Don’t Move This Mountain”.  Even more contemporary spiritual song writers would include Deborah Smith, Laurie Klein, Karen Lafferty and Darlene Zschech.  This is only a small number of the many spiritual song writers today.  Their musical output floors me.