Academic journal article The Hymn

The Origins of Lowell Mason's Tune HAMBURG

Academic journal article The Hymn

The Origins of Lowell Mason's Tune HAMBURG

Article excerpt

Lowell Mason's hymn tune Hamburg is one of the most familiar products of the church music reform that swept the United States during the early decades of the nineteenth century.1 Together with the English melody Rockingham (Old) it has become one of the two most common settings in United States hymnals for Isaac Watts's "When I survey the wondrous cross."

The church music reform began as a reaction against the elaborate psalmody of eighteenth-century United States composers such as William Billings and the shapenote folk hymnody that was popular in rural areas of the country. In the estimation of the reformers, the complexity, harmonic "ineptitudes," and often dance-like rhythms of the eighteenth-century composers were both too difficult for congregations to sing and lacked the requisite devotional quality.2 Folk hymnody was suspect because of the secular background of many of its tunes and its association with shape notes, which, though intended to teach people how to read notation, was seen by the reformers as a stumbling block to a true understanding and performance of music.

Lowell Mason and his slightly older contemporary, Thomas Hastings, were the chief figures among the reformers. In their desire to provide what they considered to be acceptable congregational music they took a two-pronged approach: (1) adapting, arranging, and simplifying melodies from European classical masters such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven as hymn tunes, and (2) writing new tunes that were characterized by graceful melodies of limited range, clear harmonies emphasizing the primary chords, and easy rhythms. Mason's Hamburg is representative of both of these techniques.

Hamburg is a very plain melody. The rhythm is the same for each measure except for the whole notes at the end of each phrase and one measure in the last phrase that contains two half notes. The melodic range is small (covering only a fourth), there are many repeated notes and not a single skip, and the melody is completely devoid of accidentals. The first and third phrases of the melody are identical, creating an ABAC form, but the second and fourth phrases are also closely linked, with the first measure of these two phrases being the same. As it appears in most hymnals, the harmonization depends principally upon the primary chords, with an accidental used twice to create a secondary dominant.

A study of the origins of such a simple tune might seem to be counter intuitive. However, the design of the tune as it is sung today is not the same as the way it was first published, and it took a number of years and a variety of steps to bring the piece into its present form. Furthermore, there have been some misunderstandings about the tune that can hopefully be clarified here.

In hymnals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Hamburg was generally labeled as a "Gregorian chant, arranged by Lowell Mason" or with a similar attribution. More recently, the fashion has been to credit it simply to Mason, leaving off the reference to Gregorian chant; as Henry L. Mason put it, the tune is "in the spirit of, rather than arranged from," plainsong.3 However, in almost every one of his publications of the tune Lowell Mason himself cited its source as being from Gregorian chant, and in one of his later collections, Mason and George James Webb's The Congregational Tune Book (1848), he gave slightly more information, noting that it was "Arranged from a Gregorian Chant, (Tone I)."4 Mason's attributions are not always to be trusted, but this one seems to be accurate, at least in a broad sense.5 The problem, if it be such, is twofold: (1) that Mason's source for the chant was itself not completely authentic, and (2) that he continued to tinker with the tune long after its initial publication, and the more he worked on it the less Hamburg looked like the source from which it was derived.

Reformers such as Mason and Hastings were generally supportive of the use of chant in the worship of American churches, and they often included examples of this type of music in their tune books. …

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