Unit 2 Study Materials

Contrasting Traditions of the Puritans and Moravians (1620-1760)


In studying any subject, we face the task of organizing it in a useful way. That can be challenging with a topic like America’s art and music because the material is so varied. The task is further complicated by the fact that historical accounts may be anecdotal, fragmentary, and rare.

The historical record is anecdotal when the information was often reported by someone who perhaps had an incomplete understanding of the subject or little sympathy for it. It is fragmentary because many of the accounts were not intended to explain the art or music. Instead, descriptions of art and music are mentioned only in passing. And the accounts, even anecdotal and fragmentary ones, are rare.

Other ways of organizing the topic can be helpful. “Indoor music” versus “outdoor music” is one way to describe the divide between concert music and folk music. Concert music is generally music refined by the skill of a composer, notated on paper, and performed by trained musicians. Folk music is refined by a more democratic and relaxed process. As it is passes through oral tradition, the stronger and more interesting aspects survive (or may even be enhanced) while the less interesting aspects are discarded. Both concert music and folk music have serious artistic value.

The Puritans and the Moravians offer another example of how we can contrast different musical cultures. The Puritans came to America to escape persecution, bringing with them a musical tradition that emphasized simplicity. The Moravians came to evangelize America, bringing with them an elaborate musical tradition based in formal education and prevailing European artistic styles.


Anne Bradstreet

Lowell Mason

Friedrich Wilhelm Riedt


Vine Lake Cemetery, Medfield, Massachusetts

Bethabara Park, Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Things To Consider

A. The Folk Tradition

  1. What songs do you know that come from the folk tradition? Are they really songs from an oral tradition or are they songs composed more recently but in a folk style?
  2. See what you can discover online about these ballads:
    a. Barbara Allen
    b. The Ballad of the Erie Canal
    c. Down in the Valley
  3. What poems do you know that come from a folk tradition?
  4. Obviously, paintings are not passed through oral tradition, and yet there is a major category of art we call “folk art.”
    a. What defines folk art?
    b. Visit the American Folk Art Museum.

B. The Concert Style of Music

  1. Concert music is written down by a composer. But as we saw in Unit 1, writing music down doesn’t capture everything that is important.
  2. How is the performer’s freedom to interpret music in a formal concert style (orchestras, bands, choirs) different from the folk tradition?

C. Composers frequently use folk tunes in their compositions.

  1. Consider these examples:
    a. Aaron Copland: The Boatmen’s Dance
    c. Vaughan Williams: English Folk Song Suite
    c. Percy Grainger: Molly on the Shore
  2. What do you think of this blend of musical styles?
    a. Do you think it combines the best of both?
    b. Why do you think composers turn to these folk tunes for inspiration?

D. Compare the Puritans and the Moravians.  Explore their histories.

  1. The Puritan texts were based on the Psalms. Try to imagine when, where, and in what spirit these tunes might have been sung.
  2. What would be the effect of hearing them sung so spontaneously in the day-to-day culture?
  3. What would children in a family or community learn from hearing the Psalms sung so often?
  4. The Moravians also incorporated their music into daily life. Think about Nola Reed Knouse’s explanation of the tunes that identified specific groups, such as unmarried brothers, children, widows, etc. Do we have anything comparable today?
  5. What can you learn today about the daily lives of the Puritans and Moravians from exploring their art and music?
  6. How do we as Americans today incorporate music into our daily lives?

Things To Explore

Visit the Moravian Music Foundation and the Old Salem Museum and Gardens.

A good site on Puritan Art.

Paintings of Thomas Smith.

Vine Lakes Preservation Trust. You can read more about the town of Medfield, Massachusetts here.