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.


This Week in the Oneida Community ~ February 7-13, 1869

Mansion House Big Hall 1875

Harriet Worden’s journal for 1869 is a remarkable window into a critical time in the history of the Oneida Community.  We have been posting daily entries from her journal in 1869 corresponding to the same date in 2011.  You can read these accounts of daily life in the Community by searching the pages section of the blog for Harriet Worden’s Journal ~ Harriet’s Posts 1869.

The past week, February 7-13, 1869, as reported in Harriet’s journal was full of events that give us a sense of the vitality of the Community and reveal decisions that were made in this period that would have a major impact on the viability of the Oneida Community.  Here are few snapshots of this particular week in the winter of 1869, but we urge you to read the entries themselves.

Frank Wayland Smith

On February 7, Harriet reported on what she called a “pleasant entertainment.”  At 7PM every night the members of the Oneida Community would gather in the Big Hall in the Mansion Hall.  They rarely missed this opportunity to gather together as a family.  This evening featured a violin performance by Frank Wayland-Smith of Paganini’s “Carnival of Venice.”  Frank Wayland-Smith is one of our cast of characters in the OC Media project.  The audience loved it so much that he played it again.  Here is what Frank Wayland-Smith played, and you can hear why it was such a favorite.  The Carnival of Venice.

The music was followed by the recitation of an amusing elocution exercise called “The Frenchman and the Rats” performed by James B. Herrick, the former minister and future husband Tirzah Miller after the Break-up of the Community.  Harriet wrote that he entered into it “like a true Frenchman, and amused us all exceedingly.”  Another member, Henry W. Burnham,  sang “Man the Life Boat.”   But it was the next performance, introduced by George Cragin,  that was the hit of the evening.  We won’t spoil it for you except to say that the performance sounded to us like a 19th Century mix of Samuel Beckett, vaudeville, strip tease and Cirque du Soleil.

John Humphrey Noyes

February 8, Harriet Worden recorded a talk by the Community’s leader, John Humphrey Noyes, about the responsibility of America’s manufacturers to encourage the propagation of moral children to counter the threat of being overrun by the Irish.  The skit the night before featuring two Irish workers that were working on the railroad line passing through Community property must have been fresh in the Community’s minds.  And, as a major manufacturer of animal traps in the U.S., Noyes must have thought of the eugenics program that he was just launching as an example to other manufacturers.

February 10, the subject of the nightly meeting was the selective breeding of superior children.  But it was not just the subject of the a lecture, but the selection of the parents was put to a vote of all assembled!

February 11, Harriet reported that happy news that Elizabeth Mallory, one of the Community women that was participating in the eugenics program, was thought to be pregnant.  We know from a letter written by Tirzah Miller later in the month to her uncle, George Washington Noyes, that the father was thought to be Erastus Hamilton, a senior leader of the Community.

Tirzah Miller 1873

Tirzah wrote to her uncle of her great relief.  She said that Erastus Hamilton signified his desire to John Humphrey Noyes several years ago to have a child by me, so there has been a sort of engagement of that kind between us of somewhat long standing.  I had felt so delighted with the idea of holding ourselves completely at the disposal of God and the Community about such matters,  that I took my release from that engagement as a great and unexpected gift from God.

Now I am free for anything Mr. Noyes wants.  He has asked me several times of late “who I am going to have for the father of my child — who I want,”&c.  But I tell him, I don’t expect to choose for myself.” The answer to Noyes’ question would be a constant dilemma not only for Tirzah and Noyes, but for the entire Community in the years ahead.

February 12’s journal entry was full of news of reports by Noyes’ son, Theodore, on doubts he had about Elizabeth Mallory’s pregnancy (he proved correct) and his recent trip to buy new equipment  “for furthering the silk trade” for the Community, as well as a report on a lecture by James Herrick on Darwinism.

Theodore Noyes

Harriet also reported on Noyes’ chronic throat pain, which would be one of the reasons he would withdraw from direct leadership of the Community years later in favor of his son Theodore.  It was a decision that would create a deep divide in the Community and serve as a major cause of the Break-up.

February 13 Harriet reported this eventful week ending on a sunny day that “spoiled the sledding.”

The evening meeting saw some of the children engaged in mutual criticism, including Harriet Worden’s six-year old son, Ormond.

These were just some of the events and personalities recorded by Harriet in her remarkable journal for a week in February 1869.

OC Children 1866