The Missouri Harmony: A Review

The Hymn 52 (Spring 2006), p. 39.

The Missouri Harmony, or a Choice Collection of Psalm Tunes, Hymns, and Anthems. Wings of Song edition. [St. Louis:] Missouri Historical Society, 2005. Unpaginated [xxxvii, 346 pp.] ISBN 1-883982-54-5. U.S. $29.95.

The Missouri Harmony was one of the most popular and long-lived American sacred tunebooks of the nineteenth century, published from 1820 to 1858 with only one enlargement (1835) and one revision (1850). Though the first edition bears a St. Louis imprint, as the temporary residence of Middle Tennessee compiler Allen D. Carden (1792-1859), all the editions were printed in Cincinnati, where the book became an important commercial property in the hands of printer-publisher Ephraim Morgan (1790-1873). While The Missouri Harmony passed out of use in the late nineteenth century, it continued to stimulate the interest of singers and scholars, and achieved a facsimile reprint in 1994 published by the University of Nebraska Press. The present book is a response to that reprint by Midwestern singers who have used it in sessions resembling Sacred Harp singings and found that the notation and especially the underlay did not meet present-day standards of legibility. Wings of Song, a non-profit association representing St. Louis shape-note singers, in compiling and designing the present book, has attempted to provide convenient access to this repertory.

The publication committee, chaired by Karen J. Isbell and including scholars Berkley Moore and Pete Ellertsen and composers P. Dan Brittain and Judy Hauff, made several decisions that have resulted in a very unusual book. While based on the musical content of the 1829 stereotyped plates, it omits songs readily available in The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition, as well as a single piece, CHESHUNT, omitted ostensibly because of its eight-measure instrumental "symphony." An important addition to the book is a "2005 Supplement" of 60 compositions, mainly by present-day composers such as Brittain, Hauff, Dan Gibbons and John Bayer, but also tunes from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources. The new book also omits the entire front matter of the original, comprising the preface, theoretical introduction and exercises. In their place, the editors have contributed three essays on the history of the book and on the Midwestern revival of shape-note singing, along with a brief note on the editorial method. There are no page numbers in the book: only the songs are numbered, while the front and rear matter are entirely unpaginated, making it difficult to cite passages in these sections.

The layout of the music is spacious and attractive, and should present no difficulties to singers accustomed to the oblong format and open score of shape-note tunebooks. While some errors have been corrected based on "context or an earlier reference," many others remain, even where comparison with a more reliable source could have supplied the correct reading. Among these are conspicuous notes in the leading tenor part, such as DAVIS, meas. 11, GREENFIELD, meas. 5, MEDITATION, meas. 1, and MENDOM, meas. 11. In JUDGMENT ANTHEM, rests are printed instead of notes in mm. 7 and 20. Additional verses for several hymns are a useful addition, but many more could well have been added, such as for FORSTER and CONVERSE.

While many of the newly added tunes are of high quality and of greater intrinsic interest than those of the omitted 1835 supplement, it remains to be seen whether the opening essays make up for the lack of the 1820 rudiments, of which only brief extracts appear interspersed among the songs as space permits. The editors' claim that Carden was associated with the book at least until 1831, when the work was registered for copyright, is highly questionable, since the copyright notice clearly identifies Morgan and Sanxay as the book's proprietors. It seems more likely that subscriptions and sales of the first printing were insufficient to cover costs, and that Carden was forced to cede ownership before the 1825 edition. By this time, he had issued another tunebook, The Western Harmony (Nashville, 1824), in direct competition with his own earlier work.

The new Missouri Harmony is clearly designed to serve the needs of shape-note singers who already own The Sacred Harp and would like to supplement its repertory. While its original contents provide a bedrock selection of European and American favorites, its new tunes demonstrate the vigor of "dispersed harmony" composition today. Other audiences may have difficulty with the book's peculiarities. It is neither a scholarly edition of the music nor a hymnal for congregational singing, since it does not provide complete texts of the hymns for use in worship. It will be a valuable resource for church choirs and libraries. But most of all, it is a valuable supplement to The Sacred Harp for those who take pleasure in singing early American sacred music.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 2006 by The Hymn Society of America.

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