John Cole of Baltimore (1774-1855): his life and works
Kaufmann, Helen Stewart
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John Cole, the son of John and Ann Cole, was born in Tewkesbury, England, where he was baptized on June 24, 1774. At an early age, he emigrated to America, and settled in Baltimore, Maryland, the seat of all his later musical activities, until his death on August 17, 1855. Despite his early training, reputedly received from contact with the singing-schools of Andrew Law, Andrew Adgate and others, Cole considered himself basically a self-taught musician. At first a writer and bookseller as well as a band musician, he eventually concentrated mainly on the composition and editing of sacred music. Much of this music was intended for the use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, one of the earliest instances in this country of music composed for a particular denomination. His earliest activities in church music were in connection with St. Paul's and Christ Church in Baltimore, both Episcopal, and his concern with the production of music for the services of this church is reflected in numerous publications throughout his life. Among works including compositions adapted to the Episcopal liturgy are: Sacred Music of 1803, Episcopalian Harmony of 1811, The Seraph of 1821 and 1827, Primitive Psalmody of 1836, Parochial Psalmody of 1840, Laudate Dominum of 1842 and 1847, and a collection of Chants For the Use of the Protestant Enisconal Church which is undated. Cole had ample opportunity to foster the promulgation of his own works since he was not only a composer, but also a publisher of music which he could then distribute through his own music store. In later years he was joined in this venture by his son, George Frederick Handel Cole, who was born on May 7, 1803, of the union of John and Ann Brewer Cole. The firm of John Cole & Son remained in business until 1839, when it was sold to F. D. Benteen, who then continued as the publisher of some of Cole's later works. His son continued on his own for awhile but later moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he eventually died in 1861. Cole's reputation in the Baltimore community as a musician of high standards is attested to by several factors. As early as A Collection of Psalm Tunes and Anthems composed in 1803, Cole published an anthem entitled "Mt. Vernon" which an annotation in his own handwriting describes as "sung at the Funeral Solemnities, on the death of Washington." Many of his publications of liturgical music were done under the patronage of the Bishops and Clergy of the Episcopal Church. In 1828, he was chosen to write "a Song for the Day" in honor of the Fourth of July and the commencement of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. His most famous hymn-tune "Geneva" appeared in innumerable collections of church music until late in the nineteenth century. Finally, his association with the celebrated Lowell Mason on an apparently equal professional footing is reflected both by the presence of Cole's works in the Lowell Mason collection and the manuscript book of hymn-tunes sent by Cole to Mason with annotations discussing matters of musical import. A survey of Cole's publications reveals his significant position as a transitional figure between the native American composers like Billings and Holden and the advocates of the "better music" movement like Mason and Hastings, who in their zeal for "taste" turned away from the native tradition and toward foreign importations. Cole started out in the traditional way, teaching singing-schools and writing tunes that incorporated many features associated with the "Fuguing-tune" composers. His growing taste for European music led him to acorn the "village musicians of the past century" and to advocate the adoption of musical practices going back to Ravenscroft and other psalmodists, and extending to Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and a group of lesser lights originating mainly in England in the later eighteenth century. He also admired greatly the German tradition of the chorale which he felt shbuld be emulated by American composers. Cole's later works reflect his concern for spreading the "newer" taste, and include, as a result, many compositions which would not be held in esteem today. Among these are several of a sentimental, "genteel" nature, a few adapted from secular pieces, and others which show a derivative acquaintance with the works of Handel and his followers. In his better compositions, however, Cole incorporates some of the vitality of the earlier American tradition, which he remembered throughout his life. He even goes back to the "sharpe-note" or "patent-note" tradition in his Union Harmony of 1829, decrying his previous prejudices against this system. He is also not averse to introduce sections of imitation in the best "fuguing-tune" tradition in a composition of a neo-Handelian cast like the anthem "O Be Joyful in the Lord" from Devotional Harmony. The dichotomy between old and new is seen clearly in the pages of The Rudiments of Music especially in the matter of performance practice. Proportional concepts of time-signatures and ornamentation practices of the early eighteenth century stand side by side with Romantic concern with text as the point of departure for musical interpretation, and the use of descriptive terminology for tempo, plus clear indication of the nuances and dynamics necessary for performance. In sum, John Cole will not take his place in American music history as an unsung genius or an extraordinarily gifted composer. Nevertheless many practices instituted by him take on new meaning when the struggle to establish these practices in the past is examined critically in the light of the present problems of church musicians. And no more objective clue to the daily musical life of a people can be found than in the analysis of the activities of an average, devoted practitioner of the art of music examined in the hum-drum exposition of his everyday commitments. The work of Cole, coupled with the sincere efforts of countless others, has contributed to the broad stream of musical culture which is the basis of our present-day achievements in this area, and for this reason alone, are these earlier efforts worthy of investigation.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University