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Home » About » Blog » The “Quick & Unnatural Interludes” of Organist Benjamin Bowen

In the second week of February 2015, longtime Clements Library donor Dr. Duane Norman Diedrich shared a laugh with the Curator of Manuscripts. They had formally added a manuscript letter to the Diedrich collections, pertinent to a hired organist whose upbeat music transcended the solemnity of the congregation where he played in the 1830s. The late Dr. Diedrich was a patron of individual musicians, a lover of sacred and secular music alike, and a man whose eyes often twinkled with a contrarian spirit. The manuscript was therefore a particularly appropriate addition to his collection.

The December 3, 1838, letter was by an unidentified someone, who claimed to speak on behalf of members of the congregation of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The recipient was Benjamin Bowen, the church’s relatively new organist, who had apparently been livening the services with “quick & unnatural” organ interludes during hymns and before services. The parishioners (or at least one of them) were especially frustrated that the musicians’ flourishes resembled dancing tunes and that boys were even seen dancing to the music. The writer strongly recommended that the organist tone down his performances and instead play before services “some Solemn slow air,” and after each verse of the hymns “play the last stanzas of the tune, which would not only be sufficient, but correspond with the solemnity of the occasion.”


The letter was described, cataloged, and made available for research in the Blandina Diedrich Collection.

In early 2023, over the course of several evenings, the Curator of Manuscripts made a careful transcription and conducted additional research on the letter. His intent was to share it with his long-time friend David Johnson, a musician who had played lively in his own father’s church. In the process of annotating the manuscript, much more was uncovered about the recipient than originally expected, bringing new light to the organist who so disrupted the solemnity of the sanctuary in 1838.

The musician who received the complaint was Benjamin B. Bowen (1819-1905), a 19- or 20-year-old who had only just graduated from the very first class of the New England Asylum for the Blind in Boston (later renamed the Perkins Institute for the Blind). Most of what we know about B. B. Bowen is through his autobiography/memoir/reflections The Blind Man’s Offering (1847). When Bowen graduated from the school in 1838, the school’s professor of music J. A. Keller wrote a glowing letter of recommendation of Bowen’s skills and talents:

June 30, 1838.

Mr. Benjamin B. Bowen has been a pupil to the subscriber, and has received instruction in vocal and instrumental music, more particularly on the Pianoforte, the Organ, and in Thorough-Bass. As a scholar in Thorough-Bass, he was first-rate; as an Organist, I can cheerfully recommend him; and for the Pianoforte, he has gone through Logier’s system, and the last part of Hunten, and performs several overtures and other pieces with great accuracy.

J. A. Keller

Citation: B. B. Bowen, The Blind Man’s Offering. Boston: Published by the Author, 1847: 15-16.

Complete Transcription of Letter

Marblehead  Decr. 3d. 1838

Mr. Benj. Bowen

       Dear Sir

             The object of this communication, is to give you some friendly advice, respecting a change in your performance on the organ at St. Michaels during the service on the Sabbath – It appears to be the confirmed opinion of many members of that church, that the solemnity of its Service, has latterly been trespassed upon, by the quick & unnatural interludes, which you make at the close of each verse in the Hymns, as well as the performance before the commencement of the Service – It has been said, they not only resemble dancing tunes, but some thoughtless boys, have actually danced to them –  I would therefore in thus expressing “their decided approbat disapprobation” request you to play before the commencement of the service, some Solemn slow air, and at the close of singing each verse of the Hymn to play the last stanzas of the tune, which would not only be sufficient, but correspond with the solemnity of the occasion. We all go to church (it is to be hoped) with dispositions to harmonize our feelings with its devotions; and we hope hereafter you will duly reflect, that the part of the service devolving upon you, is one in which many of the church & congregation wish to join, when conducted with solemnity. We feel it a duty we owe you, as well as ourselves, in recommending this change, and we hope you will receive it with our kind wishes for your welfare & happiness

Many members of the church & congregation at St Michaels


B. Bowen returned from school to his hometown of Marblehead, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1838 and attempted to make a living as a weaver, a musician, and music teacher. In several sections of The Blind Man’s Offering, Bowen reflected on the difficulty for blind persons to secure a livable wage at mechanical and musical work, drawing attention to employers’ skepticism about the capabilities of the blind. In one section, for example, he opined:

Music is the favorite employment of the blind. Its pursuit probably affords them a higher degree of enjoyment than that of any other to which they might give their attention. “In the concord of sweet sounds,” he derives a pleasure akin to that which they feel whose blessed privilege it is to look upon the ever-varied face of nature. Yet even here sight confers an advantage. It was thought at first that the blind would be generally employed as organists in our churches, and as teachers of music; but the result has not equalled their hopes, nor their claims. We know of but few blind persons who have been able to obtain constant employment as musicians.

The Clements Library constantly learns about our collections from volunteers, students, scholars, donors, visitors, and through our own continued investigations. This parishioner’s letter to Benjamin Bowen was described and cataloged for its content about religious attitudes surrounding sacred music, the Marblehead church in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts during the later years of the Second Great Awakening, youth, dance, and more. However, with the dedication of additional research, we discover that it is also evidence of one young man’s attempts to eke out a place for himself in his hometown, where he might labor and make enough money to support himself in the face of unique challenges associated with his disability. Dr. Diedrich would have been elated to know that this manuscript has so much more to offer than we were aware of in 2015 and that his generosity continues to bear fruit.