Early American Hymn Tunes
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Table of Contents

      Variations  on  Amazing  Grace          .     .     .     .     .     .      (4 pages)
       Prelude and Fugue on Azmon         .     .     .     .     .     .     .     (4 pages) 
      Quiet  Prelude  on  Land of  Rest         .     .     .     .     .     .       (2 pages) 
      Fantasy on  Morning Song      .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     (8 pages) 
      Grand  Rondo  on  Simple Gifts and Bourbon     .     .      (7 pages) 
      Rondo  on  Simple Gifts     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .      (5 pages) 
      Orison  on Toplady    [Rock of Ages]      .    .     .    .     .    (7 pages) 
      Three  Verses  on  Wondrous Love   .     .     .     .     .     .      (6 pages) 

[ Afterword ]


Four Verses on Amazing Grace presents a pentatonic hymn tune, New Britain, that was first published in Virginia Harmony, 1831. The tune has also been called Harmony Grove, Symphony, Solon, and Redemption, and its origins extend back into early American folk music, with likely roots in Anglo-European folk cultures. In this setting, a series of variations follows a brief introduction, with each verse becoming more intricate.  The third verse, elaborately accompanied, appears in a new key; a richly harmonized fourth variation returns to the original tonic  key  and is  rounded out  by  a  brief restatement of  the introduction.

        Prelude and Fugue on Azmon sets a hymn tune by Carl Gotthilf Glaser, originally intended for Lowell Mason’s 1839 publication of the Modern Psalmist.  Its reemergence in 1850 in The New Carmina Sacra, and also in Mason’s and George Webb’s Cantica Laudis, is altered in form, with the original quadruple meter (4/4) converted to triple (3/2).  The setting is written in a conservative 19th century American Romantic idiom.  The prelude opens with freely imitative writing and closes with a bold statement of the hymn.  A fugue subject based on the beginning of the hymn tune's first phrase is introduced in an exposition and followed by a series of episodes and recurring fugal entries, all underpinned by phrase-by-phrase statements of Azmon's tune in an augmented pedal cantus firmus.  A brief codetta provides a calming close.

        Quiet Prelude
on  Land of Rest  presents three verses, or variations, on an anonymous hexatonic melody. An early published version of the tune appeared in The Sacred Harp (1844), titled New Prospect and attributed to W. S. Turner.  In 1938, a harmonized version of the tune was published in Annabel Morris Buchanan’s Folk Hymns of America and identified by her as being English or Scottish in origin.  Quiet Prelude opens with a slowly rocking ostinato pattern in the right hand and the hymn tune in tenor registers in the left. The second verse introduces a new key as the hymn melody migrates to the soprano line.  Following a return to the original tonic key, a freely canonic third verse includes a reemergence of the ostinato figuration, then is ended by a gentle and canonically imitative codetta.

on Morning Song is an extended setting of an early American hymn tune that first appeared in a collection by John Wyeth, Repository of Sacred Music (1813), and also in Ananias Davisson's Kentucky Harmony (1816). Choral's introduction offers hints of a counter-melody that is yet to make its appearance, followed in turn by loosely imitative rising and falling triplet phrases drawn from the source melody.  A bold entry of the complete hymn tune in tenor register is accompanied by triplet toccata figurations; then the anticipated counter-theme is introduced (in the relative major key), followed by a restatement of the hymn tune, again  in  tenor range.  The  counter-theme reemerges sweetly, then gives way to an imitative transition. At last the hymn tune appears –  resoundingly and boldly — in the bass registers (organ pedals), joined with the counter-theme presented in treble registers, all animated by intense rhythmic activity. A melodious coda ends with a freely mirrored restatement of the counter-melody -- once more in tenor range -- bringing Morning Song to a serene conclusion.

Rondo on Simple Gifts and Bourbon is an extended setting of two contrasting hymn tunes, both with roots in American folk music. Simple Gifts traces its folk origins to 18th century Shaker culture, while Bourbon’s pentatonic melody was first published in William Moore’s Columbian Harmony (1825), attributed to Freeman Lewis. In this setting, Simple Gifts appears in a multi-sectional rondo; its second statement offers a richly harmonized version of the melody in a new tonality.  In contrast with the apparent simplicity of the opening sections, the  intervening five variations on Bourbon pose a marked contrast with their chromatic and modulating passacaglia-like structure; the hymn melody migrates between voices, sounding out strongly in the bass registers for the last two variations. After a brief pause, Simple Gifts returns in abbreviated  form  to bring Grand Rondo to a gentle conclusion.  For those seeking a more straightforward setting of Simple Gifts by itself, the opening sections have been exerpted, restructured and reformatted into a separate score. 

on Toplady is composed on a tune that has become one of the cornerstones of the American hymn tradition. Thomas Hastings wrote his musical setting of the text, “Rock of Ages,” for its 1832 publication in Hastings’ and Mason’s Spiritual Songs  for  Social  Worship.   Following  Orison’s  brief  intro-ductory flourish, the hymn tune is presented in the soprano line, followed by a modulation from B-flat major to D major for a contrasting variation in which the melody is sounded in canon between soprano and pedaled bass line. A return to the beginning (i.e., a da capo restatement) and a brief codetta round out this gentle arrangement.

        The setting of Three Verses on Wondrous Love presents an unusual modal hymn tune of anonymous origin that first appeared in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, published in 1843, and a year later in B. F. White’s The Sacred Harp.  The metric format is similar, with its  textual repetitions, to a recurring folk structure, the “Captain Kidd meter,” so named for a ballad linked to an early 18th century date with even earlier roots in the British Isles.  The first  verse  presents Wondrous Love’s enigmatically modal melody in the soprano register over a syncopated and gradually descending bass line.  An etherial second verse follows in A-flat major, ceding to a return of the introduction and original tonic key, after which the third and final verse offers a brief toccata with the hymn tune sounding in the tenor. Following a dramatic pause, an expressive coda concludes Wondrous Love with bold and exuberant flourishes.