American Classical Hymns

The Book

Fascinating and beautifully written. A major achievement.

Stephen A. Crist, Emory University

Gems of Exquisite Beauty: How Hymnody Carried Classical Music to America (Oxford University Press, 2020) traces the rise and fall of 19th-century American hymnodic adaptations of European classical music, looking outward toward these tunes’ place in American life and inward toward the musical craft of the adaptation process itself.

The book’s first chapter explores the place of hymnody in the American antebellum world, lingering over the panorama of sacred-music practices with which the Northeast’s most enthusiastically European-minded psalmodic reformers rubbed elbows (the rugged shape-note tradition lodged in the Sacred Harp was a particularly vibrant competing tradition).

The three chapters at the book’s heart trace the historical trajectory of this tradition of adaptations. Early tune books of Arthur Clifton (An Original Collection of Psalm Tunes, 1819) and Lowell Mason (The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music, 1822) provided vast swaths of psalmody culled from European classical music. But it was only in the early 1840s that the idea really caught fire. Hundreds of such adaptations appeared in a single decade of feverish activity that crested around the middle of the century.

The book’s final chapter explores this adaptation practice as a creative enterprise. Far beyond simple excerpts, the most ambitious of these adaptations represent inventive, resourceful conduits through which numerous dimensions of Europe’s rich musical practices were brought within reach of the American public.

Table of Contents
1. Antebellum Psalmody in Its Cultural Context
2. An Immigrant’s Musical Memoir: Clifton’s 1819 Original Collection and the Modest Launch of a Tradition
3. Institutional Certification: Mason’s 1822 Handel and Haydn Society Collection and Its Impact
4. Heyday: Kingsley’s 1838 Sacred Choir and the Midcentury Mania
5. Psalmodic Adaptation as Musical Translation