America's First Singing Contest


By Roger Lee Hall
Director, New England Music Archive


Long before "American Idol" or other television singing contests, the first contest held in the U.S.A. was held way back around 1790.

This is the part of the description from the Stoughton Musical Society's Centennial Collection, from information provided by Samuel Tolman, one of the Stoughton singers in the contest:

With the best intentions to increase the efficiency of their own church service, the ministers reported that they heard better music at Stoughton than any other place. Reports then took to themselves wings, as they do now, and they soon reached the good people of Dorchester, even the singers of the old First Parish, from whose broad limited have sprung so many other churches to bless the land.

Confident in their ability and ready to test it, they challenged the Stoughton singers to a trial. The challenge was accepted; a meeting arranged. It was held in a large hall in Dorchester, and, says a narrator who was one of the singers, "The hall was filled with prominent singers, far and near, including many notables from Boston."

The Dorchester contestants had a "bass viol" and female singers. The Stoughton party consisted of twenty selected male voices, without instruments, and led by Squire Elijah Dunbar, the president of the Stoughton Musical Society, who was not only one of the most accomplished singers of his day, but distinguished for his commanding presence and dignified bearing. The Dorchester party sang an anthem, recently published, executing it with grace and precision. The Stoughton party followed with Jacob French's new anthem, "The Heavenly Vision," rendered without book or notes. The applause was unbounded as they took their seats. Again the Dorchester choir sang; then, to close the tournament, the Stoughton choir sang, without book, Handel's grand "Hallelujah Chorus," recently published in the country by Isaiah Thomas. The Dorchester singers acknowledged defeat, and endorsed the taste and judgment of the ministry. So endeth this incident of the olden time.

First U.S. printing of "The Heavenly Vision"
in The Worcester Collection of Sacred Harmony (1786)

This anthem is performed on the CD album,
Old Stoughton Music Sampler


To sing Handel's mighty "Hallelujah Chorus" from memory and without any instrumental accompaniment was a very impressive achievement at that time and would be the same today.

This was a singing contest that demonstrated what singing skill was like in early New England and continued on with the Stoughton Musical Society -- now The Old Stoughton Musical Society - the oldest surviving singing society in the U.S.A., founded in 1786.


First printing in the U.S. of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus"
in Laus Deo: The Worcester Collection of Sacred Harmony (1786)




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