The English headwaters of American hymn singing

William Tans'ur

William Tans’ur, 1760

I expect that hardly any of my readers have ever heard of William Tans’ur. That is partly because the history of church music in the eighteenth century has been written almost exclusively about music for various courts and major cities, to the exclusion of music for country churches.

But Tans’ur appears to have had more influence on musical life in colonial America, including the important composer William Billings, than anyone else.

The name William Tanzer appears in the baptismal register at Dunchurch in 1706, the son of a common laborer named Edward Tanzer.

As an adult, William adopted the spelling Tans’ur, very likely in an attempt to appear to have come from a higher social class. His prose writings exhibit a particularly pretentious style. He signed some of his prefaces with “University of Cambridge” after his name on no firmer basis than the fact that his son William became a chorister at Trinity College there.

Nonetheless, he performed a significant service for English rural churches an an itinerant teacher and organist by giving them hymns and other worship music of a higher quality than they had known before and by writing instructions for how to sing them.

In 1735 he published two collections of hymn tunes, A Compleat Melody, or, The Harmony of Sion and even more popular, The Melody of the Heart. Tans’ur subsequently issued seven more volumes of psalm tunes, hymn tunes, and anthems.

One of them, The Royal Melody Compleat, or, The New Harmony of Zion (1755), introduced a new style of sacred music called the fuguing tune. It appeared in America in 1771 with the title The American Harmony.

Students of American musical history surely know the name William Billings, the earliest truly notable American composer. He adopted the fuguing tune, which became a much more important feature of American hymn singing than it probably ever did in England.

Although I have not compared Tans’ur’s instructions on the rudiments of music with Billings’, I expect Billings leaned as heavily upon them as he did the hymns themselves, and that his contemporaries did as well.

Tans’ur dominated the composition and publication of English psalm and hymn tunes much the way his contemporary Handel dominated what would later become classical music and the way Arne dominated the beginnings of English popular music at about the same time.

While writers of histories of English music can ignore rural populations , it is not possible to ignore the same kinds of music once they were transplanted to America. Billings and others wrote music in the same basic styles and forms as Tans’ur and began to develop a distinctly American school of composition. No American composing music in any other genre accomplished anything of the kind.

A generation or so later, Lowell Mason attempted to wean American hymn singing from this lowbrow country music and replace it with a more mainstream (that is, urban and better educated) European style.

Bach’s chorales appear to have been completely forgotten by then. To my taste, anyway, Mason’s tunes are at best no better than Billings and his harmonies and rhythms much less interesting. Meanwhile, the New England contemporaries of William Billings devised the shaped-note system of printing music to make it easier for the untutored to learn to read the hymns.

This system migrated to the American south, where a number of important publications, notably The Sacred Harp kept the rural style of hymn singing alive.

As in Tans’ur’s England, it became an essentially underclass music, hardly noticed and certainly not embraced by more urban audiences until late in the twentieth century. Many of the tunes found a permanent place in standard hymnals that use only round note notation and more European harmonizations.

The shaped note notation and old rural harmonization (with the tune in the middle of the texture instead of the top line) remain relatively unknown despite the renewed interest over the past half-century or so.


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