American Classical Hymns

The Repertoire: A Historical Overview

New York’s Grace Church, for which William A. King compiled the 1852 Grace Church Collection of Sacred Music

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, many Americans first encountered European classical music in the form of psalm and hymn tunes. Hymnody was the United States’ best-selling form of popular music through the early 19th century, the most successful tune books reaching sales figures in the hundreds of thousands. Tunes lifted from Haydn, Mozart, and other “modern” European composers first found a regular place in this market in the early 1820s, hundreds appearing by the early 1850s. A few remain in use today—millions have sung “Joyful, joyful we adore thee” to Beethoven, and “Glorious things of Thee are spoken” to Haydn. But these are the merest vestige of one of the most distinctive features of antebellum music-making in the United States.

The first American tune book to try out such adaptations in a thoroughgoing way was Arthur Clifton’s 1819 Original Collection. A founding member of London’s Philharmonic Society (and soloist at their 1813 debut concert), Clifton had fled England in 1817 under the cloud of an obscure scandal, seeking a fresh start in Baltimore. His 1819 Original Collection was a commercial failure, but a pathbreaking harbinger of things to come, including 21 hymnodic adaptations of Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven’s work. Lowell Mason’s 1822 Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection—a runaway best-seller that launched Mason’s career as the era’s most influential American musician—also contained 21 such adaptations, bringing the practice fully into public view.

But it was an idea whose time had not quite come. 15 years passed before another tune book appeared that came close to matching the sheer number of classical music adaptations those two early volumes boasted. And it was only in the early 1840s that the tradition caught fire. Hundreds of such tunes appeared across a single decade of feverish activity that crested around the middle of the century.

Lowell Mason (1792-1872), compiler of the pathbreaking 1822 Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music

New York stood at the vibrant heart of that great midcentury wave. Many of the most prominent musicians, choir conductors, and music educators in that city—Elam Ives, Thomas Hastings, William Batchelder Bradbury, Henry Timm, William King, Ureli Corelli Hill (founding conductor of the New York Philharmonic), and others—compiled tune books hosting an abundance of melodies borrowed from classical works. Boston was not able to keep pace, but came close, thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of compilers like George James Webb, Benjamin Franklin Baker, and, of course, Lowell Mason.

No compiler was more energetically committed to the cause, however, than George Kingsley. Shy, modest to a fault, and all but forgotten today, Kingsley enjoyed moderate renown as a music teacher, compiler, and organist whose career carried him from Northampton, Massachusetts, through Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. It was Kingsley’s 1838 Sacred Choir—with 24 tunes culled from the work of major European composers—that spearheaded the midcentury revitalization of the practice. His 1853 Templi Carmina contained no fewer than 61 such tunes, representing the high-water mark of the tradition.

For all its resourcefulness and beauty, this repertoire’s place in the panorama of American music-making was ambivalent. These tunes embody as wholeheartedly Europe-centered a vision of American music as can be imagined. Their compilers were almost all denizens of the Northeast (where American settler colonialism’s roots ran deepest) who traced their own ancestry to Europe. Among their American contemporaries who traced their ancestry to Africa, or to North America before 1492—not to mention European-American shape-note devotees, who held sway in the West and South—were manifold musical practices of wholly different kinds. And among the compilers represented in this anthology were some, like Lowell Mason, seemingly bent on promulgating their own musical vision as widely as possible, inclining toward the silencing of others. Their musical legacy is haunted by the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

The present anthology is not innocent of this history. It is a product of this history, its development underwritten by an agency (the NEH) of that settler-colonial government, its compiler a European-American whose university office sits on land ceded by treaty to Native Americans. But this anthology is not, to say the very least, offered in a spirit of cultural conquest. The ambitious, adventurous American music makers on display here have themselves largely fallen silent for well over a century. This anthology is an invitation to hear their remarkable voices again, voices which today have much less power to subjugate than to delight. It is offered simply to the many who take pleasure in the rich tradition of Western art music, and for whom the singing of Christian hymns has at least the potential to be a source of joy.