In the current pre-publication packet some of you may have noticed that the composer of the anthem ShH 453 CRUCIFIXION is no longer given as “M. Kyes”. The identity of this composer has been a tantalizing enigma for some time; who could write such an extraordinary piece as Crucifixion, and yet remain utterly unknown? Ten pieces are ascribed to M. Kyes in Asahel Benham’s Social Harmony, two more tunes in Benham’s Federal Harmony, and a single tune (ShH 452 SOLITUDE) in Wyeth’s Repository, Part II.
A look at Benham’s indices brings up the question: why is “Kyes” the only composer there with an initial before his surname? There is no record of any other composer of the period with the same surname, so why was the distinction necessary? The clue lies in the name actually printed in Wyeth’s index: M’Kyes – using an apostrophe or full-stop (or period) was another way of writing Mc or Mac surnames – which means we should really be looking for a ‘McKyes’. This supposition was confirmed by early American sacred music expert Nym Cooke, who shared with us his discovery of several songs in an 1803 manuscript, located in the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford and compiled by Ishmael Spicer, singing master of Connecticut. The manuscript contains five tunes attributed to “McKyes” – four of them are from Benham’s “M.Kyes” tunes, and the fifth, ‘Rolling-Sky’, has not been found elsewhere.
I often search for old tunebooks which have recently been scanned and made available online (say what you will), so you can imagine my excitement at discovering, purely by chance, six tunes ascribed to “B. McKyes” in Mark Burnham’s Colonial Harmonist, 1832, published in Port Hope, Ontario (scanned and uploaded to archive.org by the University of Alberta). These six pieces do not sit easily with the overall style of the book (a round-note tunebook with Lowell Mason aspirations, including figured bass and containing many English compositions), but they show striking similarities to the “M.Kyes” tunes published by Benham. Four of them are in minor keys, in fact a significant proportion of the total amount of minor-key music in the book. So who was this B. McKyes?
After some eager research and correspondence, we are proud to reveal, with very little doubt, the man we believe to be the composer: Barnabas McKyes (c.1765-1835), a farmer who lived his later life in Amherst (now Cobourg), Hamilton, Ontario.
We managed to get in touch with his great-great-grandson, Edward McKyes, who told us that Barnabas’ father Daniel emigrated from the Isle of Man in the mid-eighteenth century. Exactly where in North America the family lived at this point requires more research – there are Pennsylvania connections which still need chasing up (sometimes complicated by non-standardised spellings) – and it seems they did not stay long in one place. “Daniel McKeyes” (presumably Barnabas’ father) appears as head of a household in the 1790 census for Wallingford, CT, and Barnabas’ first son Willis was born in Vermont in 1794. Certainly more work is needed on McKyes’ connections to Benham (also a resident of Wallingford) and Spicer – was it a pupil-teacher relationship, or were they fellow singing masters?
As we can see, the McKyes family seem to have moved around a bit (we are not certain where or exactly when Barnabas was born) before travelling slowly northwards around the turn of the century to settle in “Upper Canada” as it was then known. Here they were one of the first new settler families, along with the Burnhams who were founders of the Hamilton township.
The Burnham and McKyes families appear to have became well acquainted (which explains McKyes’ tunes in Burnham’s Colonial Harmonist); Mark Burnham (1791-1864) and Barnabas were brother freemasons, members of the North Star Lodge which met at Stiles’ Hotel in Amherst/Cobourg from 1819-1822; also Zacheus Burnham, Mark’s older brother, appears as an executor of Daniel McKyes’ will in 1811.
Incredibly, not only do Barnabas’s direct descendants still live in south-east Canada, but we are told that musical ability has also been passed down through the family.
The total number of McKyes pieces known now stands at 21, with six of these currently heading for publication in The Shenandoah Harmony: 224 PREPARATION, 225 SURPRISE, 302 PARADISE, 452 SOLITUDE, 453 CRUCIFIXION, and 456 MORTALITY. That’s 10 in Benham’s Social Harmony, 2 in Benham’s Federal Harmony, 1 in Wyeth’s Repository Part II, 6 in Burnham’s Colonial Harmonist, 1 in the Ishmael Spicer MS, and 1 more in a MS Second Edition of Burnham’s Colonial Harmonist (c.1836).
A couple of Benham’s M.Kyes/McKyes tunes were republished in The Easy Instructor, The Tennessee Harmony, and The Hesperian Harp ; other than this, his music seems to have fallen into obscurity for about 150 years. Interestingly, N. Little used McKyes’ tune 456 MORTALITY as the model for his tune MEDITATION in The Easy Instructor.
It’s a good feeling to uncover a little bit about the life of a composer, especially a little-known and talented person such as Barnabas McKyes. I hope that we find more!
Thanks to Rachel Hall for encouraging me to do this write-up, and for following up leads on the right side of the pond, and thanks to Nym Cooke for sharing his research on McKyes – also, apologies for my UK English spellings!
Update: you can read more about this discovery in an article about Nym Cooke’s forthcoming shape-note book, The American Harmony. We’re eagerly looking forward to his book!
Disclaimer: We have no indisputable proof that Barnabas McKyes, B. McKyes, and M.Kyes are the same person. However, we have presented the facts as we know them, and the available evidence reasonably suggests we may be correct in our supposition. We would be glad to hear of any information that either supports or undermines our theory!