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To Encourage Music

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Music at Longmeadow's early meeting house had been a very controversial topic during Stephen William's early years as minister. The matter must have been settled by 1765 when the parish voted that a suitable instructor be found to "instruct us in the Art of Singing."

"To the Selectmen of Longmeadow Please to direct the Town Treasurer to pay to Deacon William Colton the sum of fourteen Dollars for a Bass Viol which he has purchased for the Town, to encourage & assist the publick singing."

By 1794 the town was ready to add some accompaniment to the singing in the form of a bass viol. A committee of three deacons, William Colton, Ethan Ely, and Josiah Cooley, was charged with the purchase of a musical instrument described as a "bass viol." Their bill to the Town of Longmeadow for reimbursement stated that the purpose of the purchase was to "encourage singing" in the church. The sum of $14 was substantial, and represented quite an investment in a time when the average daily rate of pay for a laborer was 33 to 50 Cents. The bass viol they bought has had a place of honor in the South parlor of the Storrs House Museum for many years. The collection of musical instruments also includes an 1835 Chickering piano, several flutes, and a lap zither--imagine them all being played at once!

Bass Viol, Collection of Longmeadow Historical Society

This instrument was examined by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, curator Darcy Kuronen in 2015 as part of a project to document musical instruments in the Commonwealth. He casually asked me "is there a label?" I replied "not that I have been able to see." Thus challenged, Darcy and his colleague whipped out their official curatorial investigative tools--two cell phones, one with the flashlight app activated, and the other with the camera turned on. With each aiming their phones through the F-holes on each side of the instrument they were able to spot a label inside the case! Eureka! But, covered in roughly 221 years of dust, it was illegible. How to clean it safely--a soft paintbrush? None were at hand. Aha--how about a feather? A reproduction quill writing kit was swiftly opened and the feather put to use. Success! A nearly intact label was found. Aaron Chapin (1753-1838) was the maker.

Aaron Chapin, 1753-1838 Portrait sold at auction in 2015, current owner unknown.

Curator Kuronen noted: "this is a relatively important instrument, as it is a quite early example of an American bass viol and is the only known example made by Chapin. The printed label inside the instrument is also very significant in revealing that Chapin likewise made flutes, fifes, and pitch pipes." According to the label, Aaron Chapin's shop was located "twenty rods north of the Court-House" in Hartford, CT. Chapin was related to Eliphalet Chapin, a prominent local cabinetmaker in nearby Windsor, CT.

Also discovered in the archives were the reminiscences of C. S. (Charles S.) Newell, written in 1906; "Personal recollections of the music in the First Church of Christ in Longmeadow from about 1840." In it, he describes the makeup of the choir and their accompanying orchestra, "consisting of two violins, two flutes, two violin cellos, (then called bass viols) and one double bass viol, with sometimes a clarinet and a trombone." He says that the first organ was placed in the church when it stood on the green and was a small pipe organ built by Johnson of Westfield, costing $600. The funds were raised by donations and fund raisers, as the parish voted "that leave be given to place the organ in the church, provided it is done without any expense to the parish. Like offering to give a man a horse, and he tells you he will accept the horse provided you will build him a stable to keep it in." Having some accompaniment was helpful in keeping the choir in key, as Newell notes: "I recall one occasion while we had an orchestra, when the choir fell from the key or flatted so badly that some of the players tried to follow them by lowering the pitch of their instrument, which made things worse, and the singers continued to fall from the pitch so much, that had they not fortunately reached the end of the hymn they might have ended on the main floor of the church instead of in the gallery where they started."

Today First Church, known now as First Church of Christ Longmeadow, UCC, still has an active music program, continuing on the long tradition started by a simple 18th century help-wanted ad for a music instructor and a $14 investment in a bass viol.anted ad for a music instructor and a $14 investment in a bass viol.

Contributed by Betsy McKee, Board member, Longmeadow Historical Society

Originally published March 11, 2021

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