We continue our interview with Barbara Owen, American music historian, lecturer, organist, and church musician.
J: For many years you served as the Music Director at The First Religious Society in Newburyport, MA. Founded in 1635, this church, steeped in tradition, goes back to the earliest days of the American colonies. How was your work at this church influenced by American history? How did you and the staff strive to keep those American traditions alive?
Ms. Owen: Actually, it was the First Church of Newbury that was founded in 1635; what became the First in Newburyport was originally the Third Church, founded 1725, when it was still a part of Newbury. There was a singing-school in the early days, and in 1794 it acquired the second organ in the area (the Episcopalians had the first), one of the earliest to be installed in a Puritan church (later to become Unitarian). It was moved to the present building in 1801, and replaced by a larger one in 1834, built locally by Joseph Alley, and since rebuilt.
There are recorded instances of civic ceremonies (such as Washington’s birthday, and a memorial service for Lincoln) being held there, along with occasional concerts, throughout the 19th century. A choir or a quartet provided Sunday music, and in 1925 an annual musical candlelight Christmas service was begun.
I became Music Director in 1963 and began building up the choir and eventually transforming the annual Christmas service into a well-attended community event with an augmented choir. My early interest in American choral music soon surfaced, adding to an eclectic choir library music by Billings and his contemporaries, folk hymns, Shaker hymns, and spirituals, and music by contemporary Americans.
I eventually published a collection of Christmas music, the Candlelight Carol Book, about half of its contents being from American sources. Some special occasions called for American music, such as a service honoring Thomas W. Higginson, a 19th century pastor who was an Abolitionist and who led a Black squadron in the Civil War. He had recorded words of some of the spirituals they sang, and a little research revealed some of the tunes, which I arranged for the choir for that occasion. Although now retired since 2002, I am still a church member and a supporter of what continues to be an excellent music program, presently with three choirs and a concert series.
J: I know you are involved in a variety of things. Would you please describe some of those?
Ms. Owen: With regard to my publications, I wandered away from Americana for a time, as travels opened up new vistas in England and the Continent, resulting in books on Baroque organ registration and Brahms’s organ works, although monographs on music in King’s Chapel, Boston, and Trinity Church in New Haven appeared too. My latest book, on the “Great Organ” of Boston Music Hall (now in Methuen Music Hall) brought me back to an intriguing chapter of the American scene. Other organ music collections included some from England and Italy, but also an edition of Dudley Buck’s chorale preludes.
Aside from my life-long career as a church musician, I recently worked for several years as a part-time music librarian, and some years ago was employed at the Fisk organ company, which provided me with a “post-graduate” course in how organs are designed and built. For several years now I have acted as a consultant to a number of churches and educational institutions with regard to both new organs and the restoration or rebuilding of older ones. And although now retired from a “regular” church position, I still occasionally substitute for other organists – something many other retirees enjoy doing. I continue to write, mostly articles, although I’m considering dipping a bit deeper into the 19th century Boston scene with something about its notable organist-composers of the “gilded age.” Back home to Americana.
Dr. Jeannine Jordan, interviewer, is a concert organist deeply involved in the preservation of American Organ Music through her organ and multi-media concert experience, From Sea to Shining Sea.