The Ossian Everett Mills Music Mission

“Each one must make a supreme personal endeavor to elevate others to the place where they may enjoy all that is true, beautiful, and abiding. Our rights, our duties, our responsibilities, our interests, and our thoughts must be mutually helpful. This was the spirit of thoughtfulness to others even at the expense of his own time, effort, and strength, which found expression in our beloved first president.”

– From the 1928/1998 Memorial Service in honor of Ossian Everett Mills.

An Historical Perspective

The Mills Music Mission has its origin in the work of the Sinfonia’s founder, Ossian Everett Mills. Mills and other early members of the Fraternity understood the true purpose of their art as the enrichment of the human spirit. They also recognized that music in America can be advanced only when men in the field of music have a true appreciation for the power of their art. Music lacks its power when the musician regards it not as a tool for the uplift of others, but instead as a means to his personal success and happiness. To help Sinfonians in the attainment of this goal, the Fraternity teaches sacrifice. For a man to focus on uplifting others, he must first understand that it is others who are important. Otherwise, he will view his art solely as a means of enriching himself. Burrell described how man’s perfection of his art is not an end in itself but rather a means to a greater end-elevating the spirits of others:

The principle that the development of manly qualities need not be stunted in the enthusiasm for one’s art has found a fine exemplification in the progress of the Sinfonia. It is a truism that as long as man loves but himself and his art he can never attain to the full measure of manhood or reach the sublimest heights of his art. He must seek to love men as brothers and art, not for the sake of art itself, but art as a means toward bringing all men up to that verdant plateau where their souls may be fed in very rejoicing in all that is true, beautiful, abiding.

Thus, the Sinfonia teaches a man to sacrifice so that he may perfect his art, not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to elevating others. It is important, however, not simply to talk of uplifting others with music. Sinfonians must put these words into action in order to realize the true mission of our Brotherhood: the uplift of mankind. Ossian E. Mills wrote of this need to put our thoughts and words into practice:

This it is to be a man of the highest type. To be and not seem; to do and not simply to talk; to have the right ideal, the true motive and patiently to transform conduct in accordance with it.

Mills himself devoted significant amounts of his time to uplifting the souls of the less fortunate with the beauty and power of music. By 1881 he had originated the idea of visiting the residents of the Boston hospitals on Easter and Christmas day, and he carried on this charity for nearly thirty years (near his death in 1920). Mills’ “Flower Mission,” as it came to be known, was awaited by the patients in the wards with much expectancy. As one of nurses commented, “What would Easter be without Mr. Mills, the music and the flowers?”

Mills was usually accompanied on his Mission by ten to twenty conservatory students who would provide vocal solos and quartets, strolling mandolin and guitar players, a small orchestra (usually the Euterpe Club of Boston which consisted of two mandolins, violin, cello and bells), and readers who would give recitations. The many hours spent at the bedside of the unfortunates brought returning hope and confidence to all. As the singers walked through the wards singing carols and hymns, each room which was the scene of silent suffering so many weary days of the year was changed into a place of good cheer and happiness.

Mills was also joined by assistants who gathered flowers used in the morning Easter and Christmas church services and distributed them throughout the hospitals. A report in the New England Conservatory Quarterly (May 1898) describes their work:

“Easter Sunday witnessed again the beautiful charity that a favored few of the Conservatory students are privileged to dispense, in the annual visit to the city hospitals with flowers and music. About 50,000 flowers were given away, or some fifteen bushels, – enough to supply each patient with a generous cluster. There were pathetic scenes as the flower girls went from cot to cot, for many of the patients were from the streets, poor and discouraged as well as sick, and a kind word, except from their attendants, or a gift of anything so suggestive of beautiful sentiment as a flower, was almost a faded memory with them.”

Newspaper reports tell of Mills’ efforts to take his Flower Mission to “nearly every hospital cot in the city.” He was sometimes aided in this effort by his brother, Clinton James Mills (who also worked in the administration of the conservatory). Each would visit different hospitals at the same time in order to spread the good cheer to as many patients as possible. As Mills’ Sinfonian Brothers, let us continue to assist him in spreading the message of music and good cheer. May we reawaken the muted song of the Sinfonia’s revered founder by carrying on his selfless work for the uplift of our fellow man.