Music was always important to Mary Baker Eddy. From childhood on, she loved singing hymns in expressing devotion to God. Her writings attribute a holy characteristic to music as illustrating the divine harmony.
At age 86 Eddy moved from her beloved residence in Concord, New Hampshire, to a new home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, nearer the Boston headquarters of the church she had founded. There she owned several pianos, as well as a Victrola (an early record player), on which she sometimes listened to recordings of the 23rd Psalm and The Lord’s Prayer1. In these later years she found special enjoyment hearing music played and sung most every day.
Ella S. Rathvon lived at Chestnut Hill during the final 15 months of Eddy’s life and frequently sang for her. Rathvon kept detailed records of daily events, including the musical selections Eddy requested, as well as the number of times she sang them. The number one choice was the old hymn “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night,” which Rathvon recorded as having sung for Eddy 26 times, followed by Stephen Foster’s “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” (23 times) and “Jesus Lover of My Soul” (19 times)2.
“The Palms,” music by Jean-Baptiste Faure (1830-1914), was one of the pieces Ella Rathvon sang for Mary Baker Eddy. (Subject File OS 15)
One of Eddy’s favorite hymns, “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night,” words by Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), as it appeared in her 1907 copy of the Christian Science Hymnal. (B00143)
We have in our archive a sizeable collection of sheet music from Chestnut Hill. In addition to popular and patriotic songs, it contains many sacred selections, including musical settings to Eddy’s poems, including “Mother’s Evening Prayer,” “ ‘Feed My Sheep,’ ” and “Christ My Refuge.” She particularly loved two pieces in this collection— “The Old Arm Chair” (words by Eliza Cook, 1818-1889) and “The Grave of Bonaparte” (words by Lyman Heath, 1804-1870).3
In a 1904 letter, Eddy wrote, “I love such music as ‘The Old Arm Chair’, ‘The Grave of Napoleon’, ‘Angels Ever Bright and Fair’ etc.”(Subject File OS 15)
Not all of the songs Eddy liked to sing are found in the Library’s sheet music or are exclusive to it. Many could have been found in hymnals and other bound collections. Ella Rathvon’s husband, William, who also lived at Chestnut Hill during this time, recalled that “from the Christian Science Hymnal…was taken the greater part of our music. Almost daily Mrs. Eddy would join with us in singing one or more of the hymns that are regularly sung in Christian Science churches and homes”4. A number of these texts appear in the Hymnal of today, such as “I Love to Tell the Story,” “Take Up Thy Cross,” “He Leadeth Me,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
“Nearer My God to Thee,” words by Sarah F. Adams (1805-1848), is another hymn Eddy was known to have liked. (B00143)
In William Rathvon’s estimation, “Mrs. Eddy cherished a greater love for home than for any other human institution”5. So it’s not surprising to find that a number of selections she requested, as well as others in the sheet music collection, involve this theme—for example “My Home,” “Home, Home,” “Can I Forget Thee, Home,” “Sweet Home,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” Rathvon’s calendar record of April 21, 1910, mentions this: “Sang ‘Home Sweet Home.’ Our Leader said, ‘The home of Soul, where sense has no claims and soul is satisfied”6. Even in popular musical pieces of the day, Eddy evidently could find a higher meaning.
Eddy was known for being thoughtful and precise about the use of words, and this extended to the song sheet. Adelaide Still, a personal maid to Eddy from 1907 to 1910, remembered this about two of her favorite hymns: “She changed the words in two lines of ‘Guide Me Oh, Thou Great Jehovah,’ from ‘I am weak and Thou art mighty’, to ‘I am Thine and Thou art mighty’, and from ‘Feed me till I want no more’, to ‘Feed me now and evermore.’ Once, when we had been singing, ‘I’m A Pilgrim, and I’m A Stranger’, she looked up at me with a smile and said, ‘I’m not a pilgrim, I’m not a stranger. I can tarry, I can tarry, all the day’ “7.
William Lyman Johnson sent his setting of Eddy’s “Mother’s Evening Prayer” to her in 1898. (Subject File OS 15)
Even at an advanced age, Eddy’s singing voice was robust and reverent. William Rathvon fondly recalled the intimate Sunday morning gatherings that were occasionally held with the household staff, in what they called the Rose Room: “I wish you could have heard the singing at these gatherings. Mrs. Rathvon usually accompanied us at the piano, and while none of us had anything better than untrained voices, we did our best with that we had…. Over it all rang out clear as a bell the bird-like notes of our Leader, herself. At the risk of her disapproval I would sometimes stop my own vociferations for the moment to catch her tones, so enchanting were they. I have heard the great women singers of our time from Patti to Galli-Curci, but never a voice that seemed so supernal or which left so deep and lasting an impression” 8.
On November 3,1910—just one month before Eddy passed on—Ella Rathvon quoted Eddy’s words in her journal for the second-to-last time: “After singing ‘I love to tell the story,’ our Leader, pointing upward, said we would all sing it together ‘there’9. This short entry hints at the sacred significance that a song could hold for the discoverer of Christian Science.