American Classical Hymns

The Anthology: Scope and Methods

The Scope of the Collection

This is a collection of 278 psalm and hymn tunes based on European classical music, as they appeared in pre-Civil War American publications. 264 of these tunes—the core of this anthology—have met five requirements:

  1. Each is based on the work of Christoph Willibald Gluck, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Peter Schubert, Carl Maria von Weber, Felix Mendelssohn, or Robert Schumann.
  2. It was published in the United States before the Civil War.
  3. It was published as a setting of a psalm or hymn, and with an indication of the textual meter it accommodates (e.g., “87.87,” “C.M.,” or some such). 
  4. Its musical source in the output of the composer at hand can be identified with a fair degree of confidence (sources rarely offer more than a composer’s name, and some adaptations are quite free—there can be guesswork involved).
  5. That musical source was not located, in hymnodic form, in an earlier American publication. Many tunes were widely republished; gathered here are the earliest appearances uncovered.

Interwoven with those 264 is a smattering of tunes—14 in all—culled from the operas of Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Giuseppe Verdi. Broadly speaking, hymnody played a much more central role in the American popularization of German classical music than of 19th-century Italian opera (which circulated far more widely in other popular forms than, say, chamber or symphonic music did). Bringing order to borrowings from German composers was the compiler’s central mission; he wasn’t nearly as methodical where it came to Italy’s operatic giants. But many adaptations of their work did appear, and these 14 provide at least an impression of them (they meet above requirements #2, #3, and #4, but not #1, and only intermittently #5). 

The Gathering Process

The earliest two dozen tunes in the collection—the repertoire through the year 1820—have already been tabulated in The Hymn Tune Index ( The great majority of the remaining tunes were located in a broad canvassing of pre-Civil War American publications, mostly sacred tune books. Over 230 sources were examined, many in multiple editions. A substantial fraction of those are available online (at,,, and elsewhere). But many—including numerous critically important ones—are not. Research for this project was undertaken at the Newberry Library, Princeton Theological Library’s Special Collections, Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Harvard University’s Andover Theological Library, the Boston University Archives, Emory University’s Pitts Theology Library (Special Collections), Wheaton College’s Buswell Memorial Library (Archives and Special Collections), and Luther Seminary’s Special Collections.

Editorial Principles

Each tune is offered in a modern, two-staff edition that can be viewed online, downloaded, and printed. Each can be heard in a piano rendition. To bring these tunes within reach of as many singers as possible, the majority of tunes are provided with a second score, transposed downward, that can be downloaded and printed.

The purpose of these editions is to bring these tunes to modern performers in forms that maximize fidelity to the source material while minimizing visual distractions. Musically speaking, as little as possible has been added or subtracted. Pitches, time signatures, dynamic markings, tempo indications, slurs, grace notes, even beams are all carried over directly from these tunes’ 19th-century sources. But coaxing each tune toward alignment with modern hymnodic notational conventions while also achieving a modicum of visual regularity across the whole collection often requires judicious negotiation, and at times compromise.

The psalm and hymn tunes gathered here appeared in a wide array of visual forms in their 19th-century sources, but the presentation of the tune LADE in Figure 1 is as close to “typical” as we’re likely to find. Figure 1 shows LADE as it appeared in Lowell Mason’s 1841 Carmina Sacra. With sales reaching around 500,000, Carmina Sacra was one of the best-selling tune books of the era. Based closely on Mendelssohn’s part song “Auf ihrem Grab” (Op. 41, no. 4), LADE is the earliest Mendelssohn tune in this anthology. Figure 2 is the edition of LADE that appears in this anthology. Comparing the two brings into view a set of general editorial principles that govern this entire collection.

LADE, in Lowell Mason, Carmina Sacra (Boston: J. H. Wilkins & R. B. Carter), 66

LADE: Edition

• Staves and Vocal Lines

To the modern onlooker, the most surprising thing about Mason’s 1841 score (Figure 1) is the order of the vocal parts. The tenor is on the top staff, the alto on the second, then soprano, then bass. Most antebellum psalm and hymn tunes appeared in “open score,” TASB being the most common ordering. Open scores were easiest for singers, while putting melody and bass together at the bottom provided the keyboard accompanist with enough information to hold a performance together (more on what else accompanists did in a moment). 

The editions on this website, as Figure 2 shows, present the vocal parts in the now-customary way: on two staves, with soprano and alto on one, tenor and bass on the other. (Note: The tenor appears to have been transposed down an octave in the process, but this transposition was already understood by Mason’s 1841 audience. In the prefatory material of this very tune book, we read of the G clef, “when used for the Tenor it denotes G an octave lower than when used for the Treble or Alto” [Carmina Sacra, 12].)

Dynamics and Expression Marks

Dynamics and expression marks are unchanged, but have been relegated to the bottom of the system, to minimize visual clutter. Only in those extremely rare cases where different voices have different dynamic markings (as in the 1836 CRETE, for instance) are they tied visually to specific parts. The use of dynamic markings in this repertoire is prone to inconsistency and idiosyncrasy, but dynamics were also often understood not to require complete spelling out. The seemingly impossible succession of markings in LADE, for instance—”p,” “dim.,” “p”—clearly implies that the first and third phrases will feature louder dynamics, which competent performers do not need notated.

• Figured Bass

The TASB layout of Figure 1 provided accompanists with soprano and bass lines on adjacent staves, to bring these two into easy view. Accompanists were generally expected not to sight-read the actual alto and tenor lines, but to fill in harmonies ad hoc. Getting those right meant relying on the “figures”—the numbers and accidentals—below the bass staff (in Europe, the era of “figured bass” was a distant memory, but the practice hung on in many 19th-century sacred American publications). If what’s called for is a root-position triad appropriate to the key—such as the E-major chord at LADE’s opening, over the bass’s E—no figure is needed. If it’s anything else, the figure indicates what. In the first measure, for example, the “6” under the bass G# stipulates that this is one of those chords that includes the 6th above the bass, that is, an E: this is what we’d now call an E-major triad in first inversion. 

Because the entire four-part texture appears on two staves in the editions on this website, there is no need to improvise inner voices. Figured bass being unnecessary, little-used today, and absent from many of the original scores, these editions dispense with it. This of course comes at a cost in terms of performance practice. A keyboard player freely concocting harmonizations is playing different notes than one following the printed score. But this was deemed a justifiable sacrifice (particularly in light of the fact that a modern keyboard player bent on historically informed performance practice can easily imitate the effect by adding or subtracting pitches between the outer voices).

Non-Vocal Pitch Material

Because the bottom two staves generally serve not only the bass and soprano sections of the choir but the accompanist as well, 19th-century compilers not infrequently use notes in a smaller font to provide the accompanist material not intended to be sung by the basses or sopranos. In some instances, this material is not being sung at all; in others, it is being sung by the altos or tenors (whose lines, again, the accompanist was not expected to be reading). Both cases arise in the second phrase of LADE. The basses drop out for the third and fourth measures, but the keyboardist’s left hand cannot, or the harmonic sense will be lost. The accompanist has to be provided the tenor’s repeated B’s for as long as they last. But at the end of that phrase, the keyboard alone falls to E to provide the root of the final chord (at “God,” in the first stanza). 

In this anthology, such things are handled case by case, and many cases are balancing acts. In this instance, it would have been possible not to include the small-note B’s at all, as the accompanist is already playing along with the tenor. But then the small-note E—which must be there, though the tenor is not singing it—would be an odd-looking orphan that simply came out of nowhere. Redundant as they are, the small-font B’s seemed helpful. Meanwhile, Mason relied on the bass section to grasp this notational convention well enough to know not to sing those smaller notes. But this kind of thing crops up infrequently enough in modern times that adding rests—bracketed, to show they are the editor’s own addition—seemed wise. 

Added instrumental material of this kind at times becomes so cumbersome that a cluttered look simply cannot be avoided (as in the 1836 SCHOOL STREET, or 1839 THYATIRA). But all of it has been included. In those very rare instances, by the way, in which tunes were equipped with fully independent keyboard accompaniments (e.g., PSALM 86 or HYMN 139, both of 1852), those accompaniments appear their own pair of staves.

• Alternative Keys

At LADE‘s actual appearance in this anthology, two buttons appear over the score shown in Figure 2:

Print/Download Score
Print/Download Score in D

Clicking the top one opens the score found in Figure 2. Clicking the bottom one opens a score that’s identical, but a step lower. The majority of tunes put a second key on offer in this way, often only a half step lower than the original, but at times as much as a major 3rd (Weber’s INVITATION is much more inviting in C than in E).


The purpose of this anthology is to return a body of tunes to public view. The texts are incidental. Every tune in this collection entered print paired with a particular text, and some compilers took obvious pride (as their prefaces show) in the sensitivity of their chosen pairings. But theirs was a historical moment at which church authorities were entrusted with regulating words (most church-goers would have relied on text-only volumes for these), while the provision of tunes to sing them to fell mostly to entrepreneurial private citizens. Only in the final third of the 19th century did denominationally sanctioned hymnals of the modern kind—in which every text is provided a tune—become the norm. That is to say, the creators of the repertoire in this anthology generally expected these tunes to be mixed and matched with a range of texts, as circumstances required.

The tunes in this anthology appear with their original texts. Spelling, capitalization, and punctuation have been unaltered. Syllable breaks have been added plentifully, but where they occur in the original sources, they have been retained, inconsistent though their placement may be with modern custom. Where a source provides one stanza, that is all these editions provide. Where sources include two or more stanzas, like Figure 1’s LADE, that number is limited to two, for the sake of visual consistency (more stanzas are provided only in those highly unusual cases—e.g., the 1836 GAULOS, the 1843 LYON, or the 1850 CAREW—in which things go differently, musically, after the second sounding of the tune than they did the first two times through). In almost every case, those desiring more stanzas can easily turn up a complete text via an internet search by first line. Reliable, easily navigated online textual sources are plentiful.

The texts these tunes are paired with in this anthology are listed in the Index of First Lines. The Metrical Index, meanwhile, facilitates other text/tune pairings.