Jonas Johnson was the youngest son of an organ-builder in New England. He was a small, quiet boy, in no way remarkable except in his passion for harmonies. So great was his love for music, that from his most tender years he could not listen unmoved to the singing of his sisters as they went about their homely work; and if the voices happened to be discordant he ran shuddering from the sound. The choir of untutored singers in church services made tears fall from his eyes upon his hymn-book while he joined his small voice with theirs.
Although Jonas let his tears fall unwittingly, the organ-builder saw them and treasured them in his heart. When the boy reached his eleventh year the family left the country town and came to live in New York, Here the father determined to let his son learn the organ.
“Remember, Jonas,” said he, “I am a poor man, and can ill afford to go into this expense unless you do the work before you manfully and patiently. I give you this profession instead of a trade because I believe it to be your wish.”
Jonas was entirely satisfied, and his slim fingers quivered in anticipation of one day being able to move these mysterious white and black keys to the sound and measure of Te Deums and chants. A teacher was selected whose manner of education was thorough and profound. At the first lesson Jonas became unequivocally assured that the business was a serious one, when after a third time striking G instead of G-sharp, the heavy quick blow of the master’s stick hummed and stung across his hands as they hovered over the organ keys. Poor little fingers! They could work no more that day—they were stiffened and red. He wept so profusely that he was requested to retire and to return in two days.
All the way home he sobbed, and held his hands suspended from the wrists, a most pitiable object. “Ah! You old ruffian!” soliloquized the tearful pupil, “won’t my father give it to you for this?”
He found his father in the workshop.
“Well.” cried the organ-builder, how went the lesson?” He saw there had been trouble.
Jonas with fresh tears showed his chafed fingers and told the event. The father listened with darkened brow, and when the sad tale was ended he solemnly led his son into the back room, and after inflicting a thorough corporal punishment, warned him in a terrible voice never again to complain of his master.
Our hero felt for a while that this was almost beyond human endurance, and for several hours he lay upon a pile of shavings plotting vengeance upon those he considered his worst enemies, when a sudden thrill shot through him at the sound of the rich organ tones. They came from his father’s wareroom. Evidently a master hand was there. Jonas sat up and listened. It was a portion of a prelude by Sebastian Bach, and the marvelous harmonies seemed to speak to Jonas as the voice of a spirit. He rose upon his feet, and his whole soul trembled with the wonderful words it spoke to him, though as yet he hardly understood their meaning. He went to the door and gently opened it. The back of the high organ stood opposite to him. He did not wish to be observed, and he passed quietly along the end of the large room until he saw the musician. Could it be the master? Yes, Jonas recognized the long curling beard, and even the baton as it lay upon a chair. Amidst the glowing chords the boy contrived to pass on unnoticed. He remembered that in two day he must again present himself. Could the terrible personage be confronted with an imperfect scale? The very thought was a shudder. Besides, Jonas felt an inspiration now. He again burned to be a musician. The revengeful spirit had left him—he thought only of Sebastian Bach.
A small organ had been placed in the little garret where Jonas slept. Thither he repaired, and commence the work that ever since he has performed so well.
The dreaded master found no fault with his next lesson, and as Jonas advanced and he perceived that he studied with a zeal, an earnestness quite unusual in a boy, his stern manner relaxed, and he dared allow all the warmth of his heart to cheer his now beloved pupil.
At the end of five months Jonas met with a great misfortune. His master, after a short illness, died—which so cut him down that the organ-builder feared for his son’s health. The boy stoutly refused to work under any other teacher, assuring the family that he felt able now to go on alone. Early morning and late evening found the young musician at his organ in the garret. Those who read this biography will scarcely believe how great was his progress. But I state facts.
Just after he had entered his twelfth year he happened to overhear two men, in a music store, conversing about a church in the upper part of the city, where the organist was to leave in a few weeks. Jonas listened.
“He plays in too operatic a style to suit the congregation,” said one.
“Yes said the other, “the simpler the playing the better they are pleased.”
“Where is the church?” asked Jonas”
“It is Saint C----‘s, in----Street.”
Jonas returned to his organ, swelling with a new and great idea. The following Sabbath morning he went very early to the church. No person had arrived except the organist who was arranging music in the loft. Jonas stepped up the stairway and came round in front where he could see the selections. The organist turned at the intrusion.
“What do you want here, Sir?” said he.
“I heard there was to be a vacancy, Sir.”
“And do you know of one who wishes to occupy it?”
“I should like it.”
“Yes, I am an organist.”
This simple reply brought a smile to the lips of the questioner. He pointed to a page in the service, and said “play that.” And giving up his seat to Jonas, he went to the side to blow the bellows. Feeling nervous and anxious, Jonas began—at first tremblingly, but gaining courage with every chord, he successfully accomplished the task, while the organist ran from the billows to the music, and from the music to the bellows again in surprise. At the conclusion they both drew a long breath.
“Well, that is remarkable!” said the organist. “And you want the vacancy?”
“Very much,” replied Jonas, trembling with pleasure.
“Then come here this afternoon, just before church, and I will take you to the minister. He makes all these arrangements.”
The boy went home overflowing with great anticipations. He said nothing to his father on the subject. He dared not trust himself yet. Never did hours pass so slowly as those between dinner and church that afternoon. But the good time came and Jonas was true to his appointment, as was the organist, who took him into the vestry-room, and introduced him as an applicant for the vacancy.
Tall, white-haired, and benign the minister stood as Jonas told him his desire.
“Yes, my boy, the present organist will leave in three weeks. Will that give you time to become acquainted with our service?”
“Then I have only to hear you play before deciding. Will you take the organist place this afternoon? He will show you the forms.”
The proposal was sudden and unexpected, and made Jonas’ heart quake; but he felt that all depended on his courage and he accepted.
He took his seat before the great organ with a brave but serious spirit. The bell ceased tolling; the minister entered; and Jonas pressed his slight fingers upon the first chord of the voluntary, which, extemporaneous as it was, may be considered the corner-stone of his life.
The music that afternoon was simple and pure as the heart from which it flowed. Again Jonas presented himself before the minister, who received him in a most affectionate manner.
“Keep to the simple style,” said he, “and we shall never wish to change. How much salary have you fixed upon?”
“Indeed, Sir, I never thought of it. I only wish to play in a church.”
The minister sat down at a table, and taking pen and paper, went on: “You shall receive what we have always paid—the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars a year. I will draw the agreement. Come now, and sign your name.”
“Your chirography is not equal to your organ-playing,” continued the minister, smiling, as he saw the childlike, uneven signature of Jonas Johnson; But one cannot expect everything of such a little fellow. Here, then, is the contract. Take care of it.”
Jonas took leave of his friend and hurried home. When the family of the organ-builder gathered about the hearth-stone that evening, the youngest came to the father and drew forth his contract.
“What is this my son?”
“Jonas made no answer, but waited while the spectacles were adjusted on the respective noses of both parents—waited till thy had read the agreement, and his father had taken two turns across the floor, and said, “He’s going to be a great master, wife. God bless him!” And then he could wait no longer, but ran up to his little garret, and throwing himself upon the cot gave vent to his welling heart in sobs of joy, and hope, and ambition.
The organ-builder’s prophecy came true. The world is now indebted to Jonas for some of its best church music. As a composer and teacher he is “great.” Those who are as fortunate as the writer of this sketch in having him as a teacher to their children can truly say they know a “great master” of music.
Jonas’ perseverance to become a musician, notwithstanding the sever discipline to which he was subjected, was rewarded by success. And not only was his perseverance commendable in accomplishing a musical education, but in securing a position in which to be useful. And every boy and girl should take this as a lesson, that by their own energy and perseverance may be laid the foundation of their success in life.