<< Front page News May 14, 2004

Con had sacred beginnings

Oberlin sells itself as a place where the worlds of academia and music come together. Music is a defining part of student life on campus for students in the College as well as Oberlin’s world-renowned Conservatory. What today’s aspiring Oberlin musicians may not know is that Oberlin’s musical character preceded the founding of the Conservatory.

“Instruction in sacred music is free to all. Not far from one hundred have attended the regular classes in this department,” the 1839 catalogue read four years after the inception of the sacred music department, the origin of the importance of music at Oberlin College.

It began in 1835, when Charles Finney hired his good friend Elihu Parsons Ingersoll to be the one professor of the department. Ingersoll became the first professor of music in an American college. However, he only held the position for one year before joining the Grand River Seminary in Michigan.

Ingersoll’s replacement was a young man named George Nelson Allen. In 1836, Allen transferred from Western Reserve College to Oberlin, where he had taught a singing class that was cancelled by College authorities. He enrolled in Oberlin’s Collegiate department for one year and the Theological department for two. In 1837 he was employed while still a student to be a sacred music teacher at a salary of $100.

He taught at Oberlin for 33 years. He was a music teacher, a music professor, a geology and natural history professor, secretary, treasurer and principal of the pre-College Preparatory department.

In the academic year of 1838-39, Allen attended a convention for music teachers. After he came back and applied the methods he had learned, participation in the vocal music program increased considerably. By 1840, he had 250 pupils. In 1841, the College announced, “Systematic instruction has been given to upwards of four hundred pupils, including a large class composed of children of the citizens of the village.”

Oddly, there was some opposition on religious grounds to the sacred music department. The pious tended to disapprove of instrumental music. In the early years of the College, the only instrumental music heard was accompaniment to choruses: bass viol, violins and sometimes a parlor organ. Allen had to convince the College to let him buy a piano for the department.

A piano was bought sometime in 1840-41 and led to much controversy. An 1841 resolution passed by the Trustees read, “It is not expedient to introduce Piano Music as a branch of Instruction in the Institution.”

In 1846, Trustee William Dawes resigned partly because of the piano. He said, “a vast amount of time and money [had] been expended for fashionable amusements and accomplishments, such as Piano Music, Dress, etc.”

The administration strove to repress Allen’s instrumental music program, feeling that it was too “worldly.” It added a surcharge for to students who wanted to study instrumental music, although choir was free. Officially, the program was not part of the course offerings in the music department. Because of this clash, Allen resigned and was replaced by C.H. Churchill in 1856. They had new and specific requirements for Churchill:

“He is expected to teach the vocal classes as they have been taught heretofore…to take charge of the Choir and the arrangement of the music for the Sabbath and give one or more public concerts annually under the direction of the faculty and will have charge also of the instrumental music, the avails of which last services is to be his own.” This disconnected the program even financially from the rest of the College.

Before the Conservatory, the Oberlin Musical Union, as it was ultimately titled in 1860 after several different names, was the center of musical life. Attending practice was a social event and the chief coed activity on campus. It was also a religious endeavor: “No person shall be admitted to membership…except such as can give testimonials of Christian character.”

The Conservatory itself was divided into two sections: religious and secular. It was $12 a term for College students and $100 for those unconnected with the school. In 1856 it picked up with brass instruction and new vocal teachers.

In 1868, the administration finally voted the Conservatory into the College, thus starting the real tradition of music in Oberlin.


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