Gems of exquisite beauty: How hymnody carried classical music to America

Research output: Book/ReportBook

3 Scopus citations


In the decades leading up to the Civil War, many Americans first encountered European classical music through excerpts captured in the form of psalm and hymn tunes. Psalmody was the United States’ best-selling form of popular music through the early 19th century, sales of tune books reaching in some instances into the hundreds of thousands. Tunes lifted from Haydn, Mozart, and other major European composers first found a regular place in this market in the early 1820s, hundreds appearing by the early 1850s. This book explores the place of this repertoire in 19th-century American life, surveying its historical rise and fall. The tradition’s foremost pioneer was Arthur Clifton, an accomplished London musician who emigrated to Baltimore in 1817. Clifton’s 1819 Original Collection-which included 21 psalmodic adaptations of Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven’s work-was a commercial failure, but a pathbreaking harbinger of things to come. 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 included 21 such adaptations, bringing the practice into broad public view. Only in the early 1840s, however, did the tradition catch fire, hundreds of such tunes appearing across a decade of feverish activity. This book’s final chapter steps back for a broad-ranging engagement with this repertoire in creative terms. Far beyond simple excerpts, the most ambitious of these adaptations represent inventive, resourcefully crafted conduits through which numerous dimensions of Europe’s musical practices were brought within reach of the American masses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages385
ISBN (Electronic)9780190842796
StatePublished - Dec 17 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Oxford University Press 2020.


  • 19th century
  • Adaptation
  • Arthur clifton
  • Hymn
  • Joseph haydn
  • Lowell mason
  • Psalmody
  • United states
  • Wolfgang amadeus mozart


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