In the antebellum US, as shape-note singing moved west and south, it was replaced in the northeast, in large part, by adaptations of bits of classical music recast into hymns for church.

Peter Mercer-Taylor, Professor of Musicology at the University of Minnesota, studies this unusual and fascinating repertoire and has just published a new book called Gems of Exquisite Beauty: How Hymnody Carried Classical Music to America in which he tells the musical, cultural, and personal history of these hymns.

The Elm Ensemble has been recording some of these remarkable hymns, contributing to the growing online anthology of recordings, all of which include downloadable scores for use in worship. We asked Dr. Mercer-Taylor a few questions about the project.

When did you realize what was going on here—that hymn adaptations from major European composers for use in American hymnbooks was not a practice unique to a few connoisseurs but rather a widespread means of creating hymnody in the US throughout the nineteenth century?

I grew up in the United Methodist Church—both of my parents were UMC ministers—so hymn singing was a big part of my life from early on.

And in my later life as a musicologist, I took a particular interest in Mendelssohn. It was probably around 2005 that it first hit me how odd it was not only that I grew up singing a hymn —“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”—to a Mendelssohn tune but that it was one of the best tunes in the hymnal. Those two dimensions of my musical being converged in this very immediate way I’d never given much thought to. I knew I’d seen a few more classical composers’ names attached to tunes and thought it would be fun to start poking into Mendelssohn’s, just to see how many history had cast forth. I came to find most had appeared in the nineteenth century, and that, yes, there had been a lot—I think I found 56 Mendelssohn tunes in print as hymn tunes by the end of the century. My website goes up only to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, so that figure is a little smaller.

The scope of the tradition just kept sneaking up on me incrementally. In basic books about hymnody, you can find casual references to hymn tunes based on classical music. Everyone knows they were there. But that’s mostly because Lowell Mason’s 1822 Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection was a major best-seller, and it had around 20 Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven tunes in it.

[Listen to Beethoven’s GANGES]

Where the tradition actually started, where it went, and how big it actually got hadn’t really been looked into. And for me, much of the excitement was finding new surprises around every corner. I was several years into this work—I’d collected a pile of tunes—before I started paying attention to this guy named George Kingsley. He shows up in scarcely any history books. But it turns out he was more into these adaptations than anyone. Fifty-one of the tunes on the website come from his publications, and most music historians have never heard his name. Also later in the research, I realized that the year after Ureli Corelli Hill conducted the New York Philharmonic Society in their first concert ever (in 1842), he published a big book of hymn tunes with a bunch of classical music in it. For him, these were just two different ways to get the word out. I find that fascinating.

How were these adaptations received by churchgoers? Were these intended more for church choirs or the whole congregation?

I haven’t found a lot of diary entries of churchgoers saying, “Wow, that Weber tune this morning blew my mind.” Those would be nice, but that wasn’t really the kind of project this was. It’s hard to say exactly what people made of these tunes, but a lot of people obviously liked them or they just wouldn’t have kept showing up in hymn collections.

As for who actually sang them—choir or congregation—I thrash around at that for a while in my first chapter. Whether congregations actually sang depended on denomination, region, size of the community, wealth, and all kinds of other stuff. If you were in a Methodist congregation in rural Illinois, you probably sang all the time, probably out of a folksy shape-note book. If you were a Congregationalist in Boston, you’d hear more of this higher-brow stuff I’m dealing with, but the choir would do most of the singing.

So yes, it was choirs that kept wanting new tunes all the time, and harder tunes, and these classical music adaptations would never have accumulated like they did without choirs clamoring for them. But some of them also became hits with congregations. (How we know this is a long story, and I share some of it in chapter 1). Weber’s WILMOT, for instance, was sung by a lot of congregations.

You note in chapter 2 that Mason did not himself invent this practice of adaptation in the US. Was this practice begun in England before it made its way to the US?

The practice was begun in England. This sort of thing had started trickling out in the first decade of the nineteenth century, but a big breakthrough was the first volume of William Gardiner’s Sacred Melodies from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, published in London in 1812 and comprised almost entirely of these kinds of adaptations. Then for about a decade, there is a bump in this sort of thing in England. And, yes, books like Gardiner’s were getting to the US. After that, the tradition seems to take off in the US to a much greater extent than in England, but it does hang on in England. The Mendelssohn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” adaptation, for instance, started out in an English tune book in 1857.

Where do the texts come from? You use the word psalmodic, but many of the texts are not psalms or psalm paraphrases at all, correct?

The hardest thing about working on this repertoire is there’s no good word for the thing I was writing about. Technically, these are “psalm and hymn tunes”—metrical tunes fit to sing a hymn or a psalm to. Back in the nineteenth century, most folks were comfortable just calling this psalmody. All kinds of Watts hymn texts that had nothing to do with actual Psalms were in circulation in a lot of denominations, some of which appear in this anthology (AETOLIA and SYRACUSE are good examples). Today, “hymnody” might be more appropriate.

If you published something in 1840 called a collection of “church music,” it meant it had a lot of psalm and hymn tunes in it. It might also have anthems, but if it wasn’t mostly psalm and hymn tunes—with meters indicated, so you could mix and match texts and tunes— you wouldn’t call it “church music.”

You allude to some healthy competition between all of these hymn compilers and include the shape-note tradition in that competition. By the time Mason and Clifton were adapting and compiling, was shape-note out of fashion in the northeast, or did they help drive it out?

It’s hard to say exactly how much shape-note music was circulating in northeastern households, but by the 1820s, it was pretty clear that shape notes were most strongly associated with what was known as the West and the South. Presumably, it was more like competition for the musical market share that made people on both sides fight so staunchly. But there were publications that went both ways, after all. The 1848 Sacred Harmony was a fairly high-brow book with a lot of classical music in it, edited by this fancy New York organist named Samuel Jackson. But it was put out mostly for use by Methodists, and there were Methodists everywhere, so they issued it in both round-note and shape-note editions.

Are there other examples—other than Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Haydn’s Austria—of hymns from this repertoire that churchgoers today would recognize, like “Joy to the World”?

“Joy to the World” fits right into this mix, but the tradition I deal with is adaptations only of what they called “modern” composers—Haydn and after. Adaptations of the work of “ancient” composers like Handel had started catching on a little earlier. But that’s a long story.* We do have some really famous specimens of this sort of thing that didn’t appear, at least in the US, until after the Civil War—that is, after the period covered in my book and on my website. Schumann’s Canonbury, based on one of his Nachtstücke, or the Mendelssohn “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” or Sibelius’s Finlandia, for instance.

Culturally, what do you think motivates this classical-to-hymn adaptation? Is it nostalgia for European heritage?

This deserves a much longer answer, but for now I’ll point out a few things. In part, it’s like, “Hey, free tunes.” Because international copyright law didn’t come into existence until much later in the century. There were people seriously committed to classical music who really did want to get it into as many people’s ears as they could in whatever form that took. There was also a value attached to cultural markers of “refinement,” and a lot of folks were starting to recognize Beethoven and Mozart as names refined people were into. A lot of compilers adapt tunes so freely it doesn’t feel like they’re all that attached to the music itself—they just want to put enough notes from the composer in there to be able to stick the name on the tune. A good example of this would be MALLION, which is based on a very famous aria in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Mason and Webb’s adaptation quotes it for about 2 measures before heading off to do totally different things. The end of the hymn tune also refers elliptically to the end of the aria, but you might not hear that.

How much travel was involved in this research? And is there more of this corpus yet to be discovered?

I visited archives in six different states—not any churches but libraries and rare-book rooms. That’s a lot of running around, but it is a lot of fun.

Less fun is locating each tune somewhere in that composers’ output. Compilers almost never name the piece. They just write “Mozart” or whatever at the top of the tune. It then becomes our job to figure out which of Mozart’s 600-odd pieces it came from. So I spent a lot of time turning page after page of everyone’s complete works editions. Some tunes I immediately recognized, but some come from pretty far-flung corners. No, I did not immediately recognize melodic passages culled from the middle of Gluck’s De profundis, for instance, or Haydn’s Der Sturm, or Bellini’s Il Pirata. In that last case, my search was not helped by the fact that my sole nineteenth-century source attributed the tune to Donizetti.

Page from George Kingsley’s 1853 Templi Carmina with music adapted from Haydn’s The Creation (“Graceful consort” duet).

I’m sure there are piles more of these things out there. I looked at the major publications by the major compilers, but there are hundreds and hundreds of tune books I did not consult. As I say in the book’s introduction, my picture of this repertoire is a little like an early nineteenth-century map of the western half of North America. The rough contours are there, there are a lot of details waiting to be filled in.

* Pretty much everyone in the English-speaking world in the first half of the nineteenth century who knew anything about higher orders of European composition (the term “classical music” was only just starting to get used) referred to “ancient” music as being the music of Handel’s generation and earlier and “Modern” music as Haydn’s generation and after. Just as we basically agree about what Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic, and so on refer to, ancient and modern were the normal, everyday designations—not just among tunebook compilers. Weirdly, most people today use our blanket term early music to cover exactly what ancient music used to mean, but we don’t have a modern counterpart to modern music.

Top image. George Kingsley’s Templi Carmina (Northampton: Hopkins, Bridgman and Company, 1853) and The Sacred Choir (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1838).

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