Text+Tune

Comments on my “Amazing Grace” posting brought up the inclination of people to refer to songs (including hymns) by the name of the text (usually the beginning of the first line), disregarding the tune. For many song traditions, the text and tune are indissolubly linked, so there’s no problem. But for hymns, the two often have separate lives (and the tunes have names of their own), so this practice is misleading. “Amazing Grace” is the name of the text, “New Britain” the name of the tune now strongly associated with that text, but the words have been set to other tunes (for instance, Jewett, illustrated in my previous posting).

Now, in the Christmas spirit, to the carol known as “Joy to the World”.

The Wikipedia entry for the carol tells us:

The words are by English hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 98 in the Bible. The song was first published in 1719 in Watts’ collection; The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. Watts wrote the words of “Joy to the World” as a hymn glorifying Christ’s triumphant return at the end of the age, rather than a Christmas song celebrating his first coming as a babe born in a stable. Only the second half of Watts’ lyrics are still used today.

The music was adapted and arranged to Watts’ lyrics by Lowell Mason in 1839 from an older melody which was then believed to have originated from Handel, not least because the theme of the refrain (And heaven and nature sing…) appears in the orchestra opening and accompaniment of the recitative Comfort ye from Handel’s Messiah, and the first four notes match the beginning of the choruses Lift up your heads and Glory to God from the same oratorio. However, Handel did not compose the entire tune. The name “Antioch” is generally used for the tune.

As of the late 20th century, “Joy to the World” was the most-published Christmas hymn in North America.

Here’s Antioch from Karen Willard’s 1994 shapenote collection An American Christmas Harp:

As is common with many  shapenote settings from the 19th century, there are only three vocal lines (treble, tenor, bass, with the melody in the tenor); the alto line is missing. Willard gives two verses from Watts’s text, but the Southern Harmony version had the full four that Mason set. From the 1854 edition (reprinted in 1987 by the University Press of Kentucky):

Southern Harmony attributes the tune to Carmina Sacra, one of several collections (from 1842) of hymns with music by Lowell Mason. Mason’s version had conventional note shapes in conventional SATB parts; he despised shapenote music and championed European models for sacred music, a campaign that drove the earlier shapenote tradition (of composers like William Billings — see below) out of fashion, so that it survived primarily in the rural South.

(The Southern Harmony version doesn’t credit Isaac Watts for the text. Willard’s version attributes the tune to Walker, rather than Mason, I don’t know why.)

The “Joy to the World” text is so tightly tied to the tune Antioch that it’s hard for people to imagine that any other tune was possible. But here’s a setting (from Willard’s collection) to the tune Sheffield, attributed, with reservations, to Billings:

This sounds much more like a shapenote song than Mason’s tune.

Willard’s collection has nine songs by Billings: Charleston, Water Town, Boston (“Methinks I see a heav’nly host”), Judea, Bethlehem (“While shepherds watched their flocks by night”, but this is not the familiar tune), Jamaica, Bennington (“Shepherds, rejoice”; the Sacred Harp has two other settings of this text), Shiloh (“Methinks I see an heav’nly host” again), and Sheffield. (Note the New England geographical theme in the tune names.)

Billings’s Boston is one of my favorite Christmas songs. Here it is, angels and all:

For a change, Billings wrote the words as well as the music. And he liked the text so much he set it to two different tunes.

5 Responses to “Text+Tune”

  1. Alex Says:

    Speaking of the difference between text and tune, there’s a famous apocryphal story about Oscar Hammerstein’s widow:

    There was a glamorous party full of theater people and assorted society types. In one little conversational clump, someone brought up “that wonderful Jerome Kern song, ‘Ol’ Man River.'”

    A woman one conversational clump over rather imperiously broke in and said, “Excuse me! I am Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein II and I’ll have you know that Mr. Oscar Hammerstein II wrote ‘Ol’ Man River’. Jerome Kern wrote ‘Daaa daaa da-da.'”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      My posting was about the names of songs, but this is a related topic: who gets the credit for a song, the composer or the lyricist? For names, the text usually wins, but it’s usually the composer who gets the credit — and that’s true for hymns as well as popular music.

  2. Joseph F (Joe) Foster Says:

    Good Morning, Arnold, and Merry Christmas.

    Spent some time around Welshmen and -women I have and have noticed they tend to be very aware of hymn tunes and their names, not particularly surprising of course. And I’ve noticed that Scots know the name of their favorite setting of the 23rd Psalm, “Crimond”.

  3. Come Thou Fount « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Mix and match, that’s the ticket. […]

  4. Six tunes, at least that many texts « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] in particular William Billings’s Boston, which I wrote about in my “Text+Tune” posting a few weeks ago. Billings liked the text he paired with Boston — “Methinks I see a […]

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