The churchgoing people of to-day are generally familiar with the name Wm. B. Bradbury. Many have cherished that name from childhood. Most of us began our musical experiences by singing his songs, and as early experiences are the most lasting, we will carry these melodies, with their happy associations, through life.
Mr. Bradbury, in his day, created a style of juvenile music, especially Sunday-school music, that swept the country. He set the pattern for his successors in Sunday-school song-making, and those who have harped on the key-note that he struck have been most successful. True, we have improved some in the way of hymns, and a smoother voicing of the parts, but there are still many Sunday-school song writers who regard Mr. Bradbury's writings as the ideal.
William Batchelder Bradbury was born at York, York County, Maine, [United States], October 6, 1816. He came of a good family. He spent the first few years of his life on his father's farm, and rainy days would be spent in the shoe-shop, as was the general custom in those days. He loved music, and would spend his spare hours in studying and practicing such music as he could find. In 1830 his parents removed to Boston, where he saw and heard for the first time a piano and organ, as well as various other instruments. The effect was to lead him to devote his life to the service of music. Accordingly he took lessons upon the organ, and as early as 1834 had achieved some reputation as an organist.
He attended Dr. Mason's singing classes, and later was admitted into his celebrated Bowdoin Street church choir, and the Doctor proved to be a valuable and steadfast friend.
After some months he was asked to preside at the organ of a certain church at a salary of twenty-five dollars per annum. On trying the organ he found it to be one of those ancient affairs which required the keys to be pulled up as well as pressed down, and he suggested that his pay should be at least fifty dollars, since the playing required this double duty. It was not long till a better paying situation was offered him — that of one hundred dollars a year.
At the age of twenty he was still singing in Dr. Mason's choir, when one evening at recess, the Doctor laid his hand on his shoulder, and said: "William, I have an application for a teacher at Machias, Maine, to teach three large singing schools, besides private pupils, and I believe you are just the man for the place." He was overjoyed and delighted. He sent his terms, which were accepted, and achieved success.
After a busy year and a half of work at Machias, he returned to Boston to marry his sweetheart, and then located at St. Johns, New Brunswick. Here the people did not take sufficient interest in his work, and he returned to Boston. Then came a call to take charge of the music of the First Baptist Church of Brooklyn. Dr. Mason gave him a letter of introduction.
At the time of his taking charge of the organ at the Brooklyn church there was some opposition to the organ among the members. He being aware of it took pains to play it so well, and in such good taste, that he speedily won all to favor its use.
After a year's work here the important era in his career began. He took charge of the choir and organ of the Baptist Tabernacle, New York City, and in addition started a singing class for the young.
This first class was visited by many superintendents and others interested in Sunday-schools, who were uniformly delighted with what they saw and heard, and the originator of the movement soon found himself engaged in many similar schools in various parts of the city. These classes became very popular. In the Spring Street Church there was a class of over six hundred. From these schools sprang the celebrated "Juvenile Musical Festivals," as they were called, held at the Broadway Tabernacle, which, for some years, were such a prominent feature among the musical events of the city. Those annual concerts were occasions never to be forgotten by any who were present.
The sight itself was a thrilling one. A thousand children were seated on a gradually rising platform, which spread the scene, as it were, most gracefully before the eye. About two-thirds of the class were girls, dressed uniformly in white with a white wreath and blue sash. The boys were dressed in jackets with collars turned over, something in the Byron style. When all were ready, a chord was struck on the piano — a thousand children instantly arose, presenting a sight that can be far more easily imagined than described. Of the musical effect produced by such a chorus we will not attempt to speak.
Mr. Bradbury improved every occasion of these large gatherings to impress upon the public the necessity of musical instruction in the public schools, and in time he had the satisfaction of seeing music taught as a regular study in the public schools of New York.
While he was teaching among the children, he would occasionally compose a song for them, and to their delight. So he decided to make a book. "The Young Choir" was the result. This was in 1841. Being an inexperienced writer, he got Dr. Hastings to correct his music. The book was a success, and others followed.
Mr. Bradbury had a desire to go to Europe and study with some of the masters there, and on the second day of July, 1847, he took passage for England, accompanied by his wife and daughter. They were thirty days on the ocean. He remained in London some weeks, and made good use of his time while there. He made the acquaintance of Jenny Lind, then quite unknown to American fame.
He arrived in Leipsic, Germany, September 11th, where he made arrangements to begin his studies without delay. Wenzel was his teacher for the piano and organ; Boehme for voice; and Hauptmann for harmony. This city was the home of Mendelssohn, whose death occurred only a few weeks after Mr. Bradbury's arrival, and whose funeral he had the sad privilege of attending.
It need scarcely be stated that Mr. Bradbury pursued his studies with the greatest assiduity.
While thus zealously devoting himself to personal cultivation and improvement, Mr. Bradbury was in no danger of losing sight of the work at home for which he was preparing himself. He visited many public and private schools, and familiarized himself thoroughly with all the German methods of popular musical instruction. He also made the acquaintance of many prominent musicians. He made a short but very interesting tour across the Alps into Switzerland. After his return to New York in 1849, he devoted his entire time to teaching, conducting conventions, composing, and editing music books. In 1854, in connection with his brother, E. G. Bradbury, he commenced the manufacture of the Bradbury pianos, which at one time were quite popular.
Prof. Wm. B. Bradbury was one of the great trio (the other two being Drs. Mason and Root) to which the church and vocal music of this country owe much. Mr. Bradbury was an excellent composer. His melodies have an easy, natural flow, and his harmonies are simple and natural, and many of his hymn-tunes and gospel songs still in use are among the best that American writers have produced. He was unceasingly active, having edited fifty-nine books of sacred and secular music, a large part of which were his own work.
Professor Bradbury was an excellent conductor and teacher. He was always kind, patient, and full of sympathy for others. Mr. Bradbury died at his residence, Montclair, N.J., January 8, 1868, leaving a widow, four daughters and a son. He will always occupy a prominent place in American musical history.
Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers by J. H. Hall. New York: Fleming H. Revell, ©1914.
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