New Bern-Craven County
Public Library

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Stephen Chester

[From: The Daily Journal, July 30, 1882]

To Music.
Ah! who, heavenly maid, hath not felt thy control,
  Entrane’d by the charm of thy magical lay?
Hath not felt thou canst touch the find chords of the soul, &  Whether sorrow or joy prompt thy fingers to stray?
Ah! who, when the moonbeams sleep softly around,
  And the murmurs of ocean are hush’d to repose,
Can hear, unenraptured, the lute’s silver sound
  On the zephyr just kissing the wave as it blows?
Or who, ‘mid the same tranquil slumbers of nature,
  When silence but deepens the sorrowful wail,
Does not sadden, as Philomel’s heart-piercing measure
  Swells plaintively shrill in the echoing vale.
From her coral abode some fair maid of the billow
  Seems chanting gay notes to the Queen of the Skies;
But the nightingale, perch’d on the sad weeping willow,
  Plains dirges of grief where her sweet lover lies.
Thus the same gentle gale that wafts paeans of gladness,
  And fans with light pinions the breast to a glow,
When the ring oppress’d with the burthen of sadness,
  Will droop o’er the bosom and load it with woe.

The above lines are Chester’s, written in 1819; and he continues in prose—

What is there which possesses such a talismanic influence over the feelings as music? It binds the mind to its musings, as if by the witchery of enchantment, and surrounds it spell bound with any ideal creation at its pleasure. In the service of virtue it becomes a salutary incentive to all that is lovely in goodness; and though its delights are of the most exquisite nature they are never found to cloy.
While the friends of public worship are making such signal efforts o secure the enjoyment of its many privileges, it is sincerely to be hoped that Sacred Music may not be overlooked from exclusive regard to the other exercises of devotion. It has long been a subject of serious regret that the female members of our worshipping assemblies, who should be “the sweet singers of our Israel,” so generally refuse to render this tribute of praise to the author of all their blessings. In the service of pleasure their voices are “sweet as the music of Carryl,” and they echo the syren notes of the piano with all the skill of science and all the fervor of enthusiasm. It is an accomplishment which sheds a kind of fascination around them, and they feel while they pour the full tide of song upon the ear, the heart of the listener irresistibly beats in unison. But they deem the holy strains of devotion worthy of those visionary beings only, who vainly think such feeble accents will ascend to a distant Heaven. Their minds must derive enjoyment from the palpable objects immediately around them, and are incapable of those exalted conceptions which enrapture the bosom of the Christian. With them the service of the sanctuary is the dull drudgery of fanaticism; and one would imagine from their contemptuous indifference to its most delightful exercise, that they fully coincided with the skeptical Byron—
“Vainly man’s incense burns, his victim bleeds,
Poor child of dust and doubt, whose hope is built on reeds.”
And it is possible that an employment which constitutes the very raptures of angels is beneath the regard of mortals? Forbid it, every principle of reason and virtue. The contemplation of His goodness who crowns us all with loving kindness, should make every bosom fill with gratitude, and tune every voice to praise. Man is ennobled in thus emulating the employments of the blessed, and his feelings never rise to so sublime a height as when he soars on the wings of holy zeal to Heaven. Our fair readers will excuse us for presenting a second time a picture recently before them, but whose vivid colors will always be gazed upon with pleasure.
“Oh! sweet, when on the bended knee,
Her thought, her spirit, mount above,
In pious, deep-felt ecstacy,
To realms of everlasting love.”

Undoubtedly Chester’s singing we have heretofore spoken of his “royal basso”—and writing did much to refine and exalt the society of Newbern. He was fond of both, and his efforts were not labor to him, but love. Thus sincerity and earnestness runs through all his lines, whether poetry or prose. One turn more of the wheel of fortune would have made him a great poet, and as he was he was a sweeter poet than many who have acquired greater reputation in the world of literature. If it were possible now to disinter the dust of Chester, reanimate his perishing form, and allow him to visit the churches of Newbern, how his heart would swell with joy to find the Methodist Church with not only spire and bell, but also with one of the largest organs in the State. So also would he find a very fine organ in his own Church, the Presbyterian, and an organ in the Baptist Church or Meeting House—as our fathers in his time insisted upon calling it—as well as organs in the Catholic and Episcopal Churches. And in all these Churches our own ladies are the organists, voluntarily and liberally giving their time and talent in the praise of One at least that will never forget it.

Chester years ago joined the Heavenly choir of which, while on earth, he so sweetly and constantly sung. What his efforts did to bring about this result and in overcoming the prejudice of our fathers to steeples, bells and instrumental music, can never be known. Yet his good work must go on until it reaches eternity’s shore. But to do justice to our fathers, some of them anticipated a change in the opinions of the generations coming after them respecting instrumental music in the churches, and Elijah Clark was active in his efforts to have a place arranged for an organ during the construction of the brick Baptist Church on Middle street, and was overruled, singular to say, by younger members.

I might add here, with one exception we learn, all the colored churches in Newbern also have organs.

Again, two years later, in 1821, Chester writes:

Mr. Lewis and his family left us this morning for the southward. During their short visit of four days they have given us many concerts and, sequestered as we are, we cannot refrain from tendering our tribute to the burst of wonder and applause that has rang so loudly from our largest cities and been echoed with enthusiasm by every village on their route. Much as we had been led to anticipate, and excited as our expectations were to “that nervous point which trembles on perfection,” our most extravagant conceptions have, by their magic minstrelsy, been far surpassed, and it beggars language to express the fullness of our rapture and astonishment. His two lovely daughters, the youngest only four years old, played on the piano with a skill and taste incredible; and his sons, the eldest only ten, performed the most difficult and complicated pieces on the harp and piano, with an execution indescribably rapid and brilliant; whilst the father, evern and anon, elicited from his violin such strains of liquid melody and Ariel sweetness, as “take the prisoned soul lap it in Elysium.” We envy not the soulless beings who can regard such scenes with cold indifference, and it is with sentiments of unmingled pity that we listen while they ridicule the “Heaven-born art” which constitutes its fascination. The spell of music kindles and exalts the best affections that enhance existence, and gives a refinement to society that sheds a hallowed glory round the human character.
Not only do we think it a misfortune to be callous to the “divine influence” of music, but we even think that it implies a marked and defective organization, inconsistent with commanding genius. Such persons cannot have that radiant bloom of mind, that freshness of enthusiasm, and ethereal instinct, which is ever sketching fairy scenes, and draws its subject from a palette “whose colors are the light of setting suns.” ‘Tis true they have not interdicted moderate distinction in severer studies, but the eye of their imagination, the mind’s brightest avenue, is closed—they soar with clipped and baffled wings, and tail fluttering through the empyrean realms of fancy with a paralysis of feeling to which lovers of the lyre are strangers. It is stated of the celebrated Curran, by his biographer, (his son) that his most glowing groups of imagery—the most picturesque and rapid flights of his imagination, were inspired by musing over his violin.
We have been led into these reflections by the ludicrous affectation of insensibility, which some of our prosing gentry awkwardly assume on this occasion. They seem to think that an air of feeble gravity, and a simple uniformity of deportment, will compensate for the absence of those social virtues which spring from a cheerful and eloquent intercourse with life. They may, however, have very cogent reasons for undervaluing those accomplishments they cannot rise to, and which will not sink to the level of their tame and humdrum insipidity. In fine, we heartily congratulate those generous souls that feel as we do, and unite with them in wishing bright success to Mr. Lewis and his fairy group and to music in general.

LINES

Suggested by Mr. Lewis’ first concert in which was introduced Haydn’s “Praise to God”:

“Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven”

I’ve seen I’ve heard the infant choir:
Their fairy fingers swept the lyre.
And threw a magic o’er its strings
That gave my fluttering spirit wings
Now the spell’d wire breath’d soft and sweet
As sighs of lovers when they meet;
Anon it pour’d the crash of sound
Of warriors met on battle ground!>
But when it woke to holier lays,
And swell’d the great Jehovah’s praise
It t I had soar’d from earth
And drank in strains of heavenly birth.
Methought my ravish’d sight could trace.
Devotion in each infant face,
While cherub smiles diffus’d the glow
Of rapture o’er each lovely cheek.
And eye, and ringlet clustered brow,
Seem’d all of bliss—of heaven to speak.
Oh! ‘twas a scene of magic spray, To melt th’ Atheist’s doubts away,
If such the blest employ of Heaven,
Who would not pant to be forgiven;
Who would not gladly die—to share
Such thrilling tone forever there.

We find Chester always writing with the purity of a woman and the faith of a Christian and no writing better suited to improve the morals of youth and exalt them could be placed in their hands. Chester may have been considered visionary and imaginative, as all poets are, yet, there is solid sense in what he says and much truth as well as poetry. D.

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