Musical Objects at Mount Lebanon
Problematic Piano-Violins and Resplendent Rastrums
The Shakers are well known for their traditions in vocal music. Countless personal and printed music books survive, attesting to the wide scope of their unique spirituals. First composed without text and performed with wordless syllables, spirituals began receiving lyrics as the Shaker Movement spread westward, to help the Missionaries better connect with potential converts in the early nineteenth century. The first hymnal was published soon after, entitled Millennial Praises, in 1812. While Millennial Praises was only text, melodies were recorded in personal hymnals, where the pitches were written in letteral notation.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was suggested within some communities that the brothers and sisters widen the scope of their study of music to aid in the performance of their songs. A more formal study of music resulted in a switch to conventional notation – away from the traditional letteral notation – and therefore standardizing the Shaker spirituals within the discourse of Western music. This finally led to the appearance of conventional staves, and an increased use of the rastrum¬ – a small pen-like tool that draws the staves on paper. Shaker rastrums with provenance to Mount Lebanon still survive to this day and are representative of a critical change in the way the Shaker community interacted with and conformed to the outside world.
While Shakers are best remembered for their contributions to American vocal music, some became advocates for the inclusion of instruments. A few, like Brother Elisha D. Brakeman of Mount Lebanon, invented new instruments. At the height of the American piano industry, Blakeman created a strange fusion of a piano and violin. He patented it in 1871 as an “improvement to the Piano-Violin,” stating, “this invention relates to a new musical instrument which-combines the peculiarities of the piano and violin, being a bow instrument with keys. It is more particularly employed for the instruction of children and the playing of light music, and affords an excellent opportunity for training the ear to the sounds, their successions and harmonious or inharmonious combinations.” Blakemen explained how the instrument functioned, describing how “the invention consists in the combination of pivoted keys and a longitudinal bridge, with a string stretched over the bridge, and held by pins to the frame of a sound-box. The string is played by a bow, and its vibrations are regulated by the depression of keys.”
Ultimately, the Piano-Violin was the downfall of Brother Elisha D. Blakemen, as he left his Church Family home in 1872 because of friction between community members and his growing piano-violin business. Despite the work of Blakeman, not all Shaker communities were supportive of the inclusion of instrumental music – some saw it as sacrilegious!