Connecticut's Musical Roots Began With Voices, Instruments Weren't Allowed

Are we inherently a musical state?

At the very least, we seem to have always been a state that likes to sing.

During the Colonial and Revolutionary days, we did most of our singing in church. And we took our church singing very seriously.

Connecticut folk, never reluctant to take strong positions on any topic, debated for several decades the proper way to intone the hymns and psalms, with rival camps sharply differing on which method praised the Almighty more effectively.

Even the question of exactly how to produce a suitable vocal tone was deliberated. A 1782 guide to the chorister's art set down some firm guidelines:

"Let the voice be clear and smooth as possible, neither forcing the sound through the nose, nor blowing through the teeth with the mouth shut…A trembling in the voice is also carefully to be avoided. Let all be done with ease and freedom."

As for instruments, our 18th-century forebears, with their clergymen nodding in approval, initially forbade them in church, evidently on the grounds that they could lead to impure thoughts. A few early Connecticut Blue Laws actually sought to ban instrumental music altogether.

But from these austere beginnings, the performance — and more to the point, the enjoyment — of music in our state rapidly flowered.

As the 19th century unfolded and the young republic prospered, a growing number of homes featured string instruments and keyboards — spinets, virginals, and for those who could afford them, early pianos, all imported, of course, from Europe.

Towns, even the smallest of them, formed bands for parades and holiday celebrations.

Singing societies, by now embracing an expanding and increasingly homegrown secular repertoire, sprang up.

Musical instruction became a badge of cultivation, especially for young women.

And churches relaxed their early prohibitions and became important centers of musical performance. For example, Hartford's First Church of Christ —- today known as Center Church, on Main Street — established a formal concert series as early as 1822. The Passions of Bach and the oratorios of Handel were heard, along with humbler anthems and chorales. Almost miraculously, the Center Church concert series survives to this day, nearly 200 years later.

By century's end, Connecticut's musical life was positively teeming, especially in Hartford and New Haven.

Among the many milestones:

In 1890, the Hartford Conservatory was founded. One of first formal performing arts schools in the country, it became a beacon of musical study and performance, for years even boasting its own orchestra. It remained a constant in Hartford's musical life for more than a century.

The following year, the Musical Club of Hartford, an institution devoted to the propagation and appreciation of classical music, held its first meeting. This lively, high-minded group is still with us today.

In 1894, in New Haven, the state's first all-professional orchestra (and only the fourth in the country, the others being New York, Chicago and Boston) made its debut. The esteemed composer and organist Horatio Parker, now chiefly remembered as the teacher of Charles Ives, stood on the podium and led an inaugural performance that included Beethoven and Mendelssohn. It too still flourishes. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, that same year, across the yard, Yale University handed out its very first bachelor of music degrees — four of them.

New Beginnings

In the 20th century Connecticut's musical life took on a more cosmopolitan tone. And one development in particular suddenly and almost single-handedly lifted our musical performance life out of its earnest but somewhat provincial status: the 1930 opening of the Bushnell Memorial.