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Musicology Professor Creates Anthology of 278 Pre-Civil War Hymn Tunes

Peter Mercer-Taylor launches a new book and NEH-Mellon Fellowship-funded digital repository
June 11, 2021

Article updated on June 11, 2021

Musicology Professor Peter Mercer-Taylor’s book, Gems of Exquisite Beauty: How Hymnody Carried Classical Music to America (Oxford University Press), has been published alongside his new website, americanclassicalhymns.com. Mercer-Taylor is on the hunt for choirs nation-wide to add more recordings to the website. 

Earlier this year, Peter Mercer-Taylor won a National Endowment for the Humanities-Mellon Fellowship for Digital Publication. This grant allowed him to take a Fall 2020 leave to finish up the website associated with his book.

“Back in the day, in the 1840’s-1860’s, the way most Americans got any dose of classical music—Haydn or Mozart— was through hymnals,” says Mercer-Taylor, whose website contains digital scores, with piano recordings, of nearly 280 pre-Civil War American hymn tunes based on melodies culled from Mozart, Beethoven and other European composers, along with some additional choral recordings. School of Music Professor Timothy Lovelace performed all the piano recordings of the hymn tunes that live on the website. “These tune books tended to be used by all major Protestant denominations, but also used by other organizations integral to pre-Civil War american music making–musical societies, singing schools, and choirs.”
 
Mercer-Taylor is currently seeking recordings of performances of these hymn tunes for the website’s collection. His colleague at the School of Music and Director of Choral Activities, Kathy Saltzman Romey, has recorded two with the University Singers, and there are several other groups that have signed on to the project in recent months.

Submissions have been coming in, but due to COVID-19 they’ve slowed slightly. He welcomes asynchronous as well as synchronous formats. If your choir is interested, please email ach@umn.edu for more information. Classical MPR amplified the search with a recent article highlighting Mercer-Taylor’s project and the challenge of his search during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Update: June 11, 2021 

Professor Peter Mercer-Taylor’s project is continuing to receive submissions for his project to document early American classical hymns on his website, https://americanclassicalhymns.com/. Several choral groups across the country have participated in the research. Three local ensembles in the Twin Cities are also involved; Lumina, Border CrosSing and Cantus, who have performed with the assistance of YourClassical MPR’s (https://www.yourclassical.org/) professional resources and equipment. 

Lumina, a professional women’s ensemble, performed “Marlon” and “Howell,” based on Schubert and Mendelssohn music respectively. These recordings can be found here: https://www.yourclassical.org/story/2021/03/18/lumina-early-american-hymns

Border CrosSing, led by alumnus Ahmed Fernando Anzaldúa El Samkary DMA, choral conducting, 2019), performed "Kensington;" a beautiful 1849 church song based on a Mendelssohn tune. See the full performance on Border CrosSing’s Facebook page, here: https://www.yourclassical.org/story/2021/05/24/border-crossing-sings-rar...

Cantus, a Twin Cities-based professional male vocal ensemble, performed “Sweetzer,” “Beulah” and “As Every Day, Thy Mercy Spares (No. 38)” based on tunes by Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Mozart respectively. View the recordings here: https://www.yourclassical.org/story/2021/05/24/cantus-sings-rare-early-american-hymns.

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The NEH grant awarded to Mercer-Taylor is one of 188 humanities projects across the USA to receive part of $30.9 million for investment in cultural and educational resources. Mercer-Taylor is working in conjunction with the University of Minnesota DASH (Digital Arts, Sciences & Humanities) program that connects scholars with campus technology experts. “This NEH grant was not just a vote of confidence in me, but in the whole DASH team,” he shared. Other projects that the grant has been awarded to include the construction of a new campus at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, renovations of the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming, and the expansion of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center. The grant also funds scholar research and preservation projects across the nation. Read more about the NEH grant program.

Peter Mercer-Taylor is a musicology professor at the University of Minnesota School of Music in the College of Liberal Arts. He is the author of The Life of Mendelssohn (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Gems of Exquisite Beauty: How Hymnody Carried Classical Music to America for Cambridge University Press (2020), as well as the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn (2004).

The University of Minnesota School of Music is the region's leading institution for the education of successful performers, composers, teachers, therapists, administrators, and scholars. The School connects with the University of Minnesota through classes that foster creativity and artistic thought, participatory performing opportunities, community engagement activities, and more than 400 public performances each year. 

Media Contact: Anabel Njoes, anabel@umn.edu | 612-624-5502