Music in the Big Hall

The Big Hall

Twice a year, in spring and fall, the Oneida Community Mansion House presents a lecture series, as part of the educational mission of the OCMH.  It is called the Adult Enrichment Series.

The topics of these lectures usually explore the history of the utopian and religious movements in the 19th Century.  The lectures are held in the Big Hall, the  theater space where the Oneida Community held its nightly meetings, entertainments and lectures.  It was part of the philosophy of the OC that each member would strive to improve his/her self, and education was held in high esteem as a means for self-improvement.  So the tradition of the modern lectures is a legacy of the Community’s winter lectures; discussions on history, languages, and science, led my one of the members.

The 2011 spring lectures were a departure from past series.  Rather than a lecture on the material culture of the Oneida Community or a comparison between the Shakers and the OC, the OCMH curator, Tony Wonderley, presented a set of four musical performances ranging from Shaker songs, jazz, blues and light opera.  The series was called, “If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On.”

The Jim O'Mahony Trio

Vicki and I attended three out of the four performances.  We had our first experience of the acoustics in the Big Hall when we heard the second in the series, “Changing Standards: A Showcase of New Music”, which featured the music of a jazz trio led by Jim O’Mahony on piano.  The trio of piano, bass and drums was playing together for the first time, but from the swaying heads in the auditorium, no one seemed to notice.

O’Mahony’s intent was to play music composed in the last fifteen years rather than the jazz standards of the 1930-60s.  This choice is a legacy of legendary piano trios led by Bill Evans and Brad Mehldau.

Little Brother  ~ This is a mp3 from O’Mahony’s trio performing a song from the Brooklyn band, Grizzly Bear, entitled “Little Brother” in the Big Hall.

Hearing music that our 20-something children listen to,  interpreted by this talented jazz trio in a 19th Century communitarian meeting hall was truly a time shifting experience for us.

What a delight it was to hear good music in this wonderful hall.  The acoustics were amazing.  We understood why the Community developed such a rich musical tradition ~ they had such a fine theater to perform for themselves and for thousands of tourists who came to the Community to sample vegetarian meals and lively musical performances.  The Community performed overtures and choruses from operas, danced waltzes from Strauss and the “Oneida Quickstep” created by Community member, Charles Joslyn.  The climax to the OC’s musical career was the performance of H.M.S Pinafore in the winter of 1879-80, just before they transformed themselves from a Bible Communist Community into a Joint Stock Corporation.

Tony Wonderley introduced each performance with a story about the place of music in the Oneida Community.  Tony recounted the conflicted feelings that members of the Community felt about music.  He recounted a mutual criticism session devoted to exposing the selfish nature of musical competition among the young female singers.  Harriet Worden was one of the singers who confessed to the group:

Harriet Worden with Guitar

My first feeling of jealousy was toward Ann Eliza.  We both sang; but at that time, she was admitted into Mr. Burnham’s quartette club; I was not honored.  I considered this as a personal slight and resented it accordingly.  One day I deliberately hid one of the books from which the club had practiced.  I not only wanted to sing well, but I aspired to become the best singer, and the most ready at reading music.  Much of the time I was in an agony of jealousy lest some other would eclipse me.” 

He also told the audience that John Humphrey Noyes was especially hard with those among his followers who he decided were becoming too fixated on their musical skills.  At one point, Noyes made Frank Wayland-Smith ~ who was considered the best violinist in the Community ~ give up his violin.  He also made the same request of his niece, the talented pianist, Tirzah Miller.  Tirzah recorded her reactions in her diary on March 16, 1873.

Tirzah Miller 1873

“Left music for writing.  Father Noyes said that I might consider that I had made a good career in music, and now call it ended, and put the energy I had expended in music into writing.  It is like the death of a cherished friend.” 

When a visitor to the Community complained that the Community “offered no opportunity for genius or special talent to develop.”  Noyes took the criticism as a compliment.  He said, “We never expected or desired to produce a Byron, a Napoleon or a Michelangelo.  A system that would foster such abnormal or excessive development in the individual, do so at the expense of the mass whose interests must be paramount.”

As I sat listening to jazz interpretations of current pop and rock songs, I could not help but be transported to the days when this same hall was filled floor to balcony listening as we were to visiting musicians playing music of the day to a very appreciative audience.

As we know from Harriet Worden’s daily journal, which is presented in this blog, the evening meetings were a celebration of the genius of the community.  The spirit of inventiveness, humor and play were in evidence nightly, as members of all ages and stations in the Community would perform music and act in skits.   I have written about moments from these nightly performances in previous blogs:  Fighting Irish and Woman’s Bottoms and Evening Entertainment.  But Harriet Worden reported on one of my favorite entertainments from the evening meeting of February 7, 1869:

Entertainment in the Big Hall

“George Miller, Edwin Burnham and John Lord entered dressed like “paddies”.  They began swaggering about the stage remarking to each other that they were tired of working all day in the dirt for a living and they were not going to touch a shovel again, if the old Midland Railroad never got built.  After lounging about for some time, it occurred to one that they had to do something or starve.  “That’s so,” said another.  “I shouldn’t like to starve.  Another says, “I will start a show!”  “You know we have got considerable musical talent”; and each began to brag what he could do.  They pretended to be rehearsing and in a few moments, they began undressing on stage, all the time looking anxiously round as if fearful of being seen.  Their coats all off and their pants!  The audience fairly screamed.  They all stood in their nightgowns, but upon dropping these off, behold the transformation!  From coarse, rough Irishmen, we saw a few moments before we now saw them handsomely arranged in the tight-fitting dress of the gymnast.  George was dressed in blue, John in Orange & red trimming, and Edwin in crimson.  Their gymnastic performances were fine indeed.  John represented a clown, though his bows were exceedingly graceful.  George & Edwin were exceedingly lithe.”

As we try to imagine the life of the people who lived where Vicki and I live now, there is no better place to enter into their world than by thinking about and listening to music in the big hall then and now.



  1. charlotte carver said,

    May 29, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    The more I read about this group the more in awe I become. They fostered the idea of encouraging each individual to become educated in a variety of subjects and to use their talents for the benefit of the entire community.

  2. Kristi said,

    May 26, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    I grew up going to the Mansion House (in the 1970’s and 80’s). I am a descendant and my grandmother lived in the Mansion House. Every Thanksgiving there would be a large square dance in the Big Hall- I have so many fond memories of the Mansion House.

  3. rick vernier said,

    May 11, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    I am trying to find anything i can about victor cragin noyes, given your extensive archival work. I would be grpateful to hear anything you know about his life. I have fiund nearly nothing in the published sources.
    Thanks. Hope to hear from you.

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