Dynamics in Early American Psalmody

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The difficulties that today's performers experience with dynamics when performing American psalm tunes, fuging tunes, and anthems from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries appear to fall into three categories: the lack of any dynamic markings at all, the placement of the terms that do appear, and the length that a particular dynamic marking remains in effect. The meaning of the terms themselves is seldom in question. In most cases, the usual Italian terms—piano, forte, pianissimo, fortissimo, or their English equivalents—are used. Although terms such as "Mezza Piano" and Mezza Voce" are sometimes found in the musical glossaries in tune books,1 gradations between piano and forte are seldom employed. Occasionally one may encounter an unfamiliar dynamic direction. For example, near the end of his anthem "Lift Up Your Eyes" William Billings directs the singers to "Shout and Swell."2 Though these terms do not appear in the musical dictionaries of the day designed for use by singers, it is not difficult to fathom Billings's intentions. Wishing to conclude his anthem on a triumphant note, Billings employed terms as much descriptive as directive. In their reprint of the anthem in The Philadelphia Harmony, Andrew Adgate and Ishmael Spicer merely substituted "Loud" for "Shout and Swell."3

Most psalm tunes and fuging tunes and many anthems were printed without any dynamic indications at all. In some cases, such as Daniel Read's The American Singing Book (New Haven, 1785) and Nehemiah Shumway's The American Harmony (Philadelphia, 1793), whole tunebooks were published containing not one mark to indicate how loud or soft any composition was to be sung. In others, dynamics may appear in a few compositions but not in the vast majority. Their use appears haphazard and unsystematic.

One may receive the impression from this that dynamics were not very important to composers of psalmody.4 Such a conclusion, however, would be erroneous, for most composers and compilers of tunebooks included in their theoretical introductions some specific statement about the importance of dynamic contrast:

Suitable attention should be paid to the Directory Terms soft, loud, etc. A good tune performed with no variation will appear dull and insipid.5
The foregoing terms [piano, pianissimo, forte, fortissimo] are very frequently contrasted in musical compositions, and ought to be strictly adhered to, otherwise the design of the composer will be obscured, if not wholly lost.6
A strict and constant adherence to the terms, moderato, vivace, forte, piano, etc. will add greatly to the beauty of the performance.7

Thus it appears that dynamic contrast was important to the psalmodists. However, if this is so, then why did they employ so few markings to indicate their intentions? The answer appears to lie in the performance practice of the day. The writings on how this music is to be performed include many statements that bear on the dynamic qualities of the music. Certain musical conditions called for certain volume levels, and it seems that most composers of psalmody indicated only those situations that were exceptional, leaving it to the choir leader or the singers themselves to determine the dynamics of an ordinary passage. Samuel Holyoke expressed this in the preface of his The Columbian Repository:

Particular directions, when to sing loud and soft, are not always given. In which case, the subject, the music, the occasion, and the judgment of the instructors must direct.8

What Holyoke seems to be saying is that the dynamics of any particular piece were mutable according to the subject of the text being sung, the characteristics of the music itself, the occasion upon which the music was sung, and the judgment of the choir leader or singing-school instructor. There were certain guidelines to be followed, and it is the purpose of this essay to explore some of these and see how they were applied.

One problem associated with the dynamics that do appear in early American psalmody is connected with the placement of the mark. Anyone who has looked at a page of an eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century American tune book has noted its cramped and crowded appearance. Most pieces occupy either a half or a full page, and the notes are often squeezed together to fit into the available space. Little attempt has been made to align simultaneously sounding pitches vertically, and the text is seldom laid under the notes to which the words are sung. With this compression of symbols, it is little wonder that dynamic markings seem to have been placed only approximately rather than specifically where they should occur. It is not uncommon to find markings a measure or more off from the place where one would expect them to occur. This is particularly true of typeset music, where, chances are, the typographer could not read the notation he set.9 While an attempt may have been made to place the term somewhere near the spot where it appeared in the source, physical conditions may have prevented its exact positioning. Also, while some effort was made in house to proofread pages before they were printed, this was often done in a cursory manner—as demonstrated amply by the numerous errors in typeset music—and often the composer or compiler played no part in catching typographical errors.10

As for the dynamic mark itself, it was normally placed above the top staff of the three- or four-stave system, but it was intended to affect all voices singing at that particular moment. Because the voices usually move together in vertical sonorities, beginning and ending at the same time, there was apparently no need for markings on the individual voices.

If a dynamic marking appears in a tune at all, there is often only one, and it is most often found toward the middle of a piece. Does this sound level remain in effect to the end, or was there some understanding on how long a particular mark should remain in effect? While the theoretical introductions to the tunebooks do not address this question directly, empirical evidence may provide some clues upon which to base an answer.

The "strain" seems to have been the building block of psalmody. It is the musical setting of one line of text, analogous to the phrase in today's terminology. Psalm tunes, intended to be sung strophically, usually consisted of four strains, setting the four lines of the normal hymn stanza.11 Depending upon the length of the hymn or repetition of lines, a tune could have more than four strains. In anthems a strain could be considerably longer and involve text repetition, and may be equated with a section. However, it still normally included only a single portion of text.

The musical glossaries used by the psalmodists define forte, piano, fortissimo, and pianissimo in the usual terms of loud and soft, but they do not indicate a more precise comparison. How loud is loud; how soft is soft? What is the median to which these directive terms, which every writer stressed were of great importance, are to be compared? Oliver Holden is one of the few writers of the day to address these questions. Since he was a leader in American psalmody and one of its most popular composers, the situation he describes seems likely to have prevailed. In the theoretical introduction of his The Union Harmony, Holden wrote:

In all common strains, a medium should be constantly observed, neither so faint as to dwindle into indifference, nor so loud as to admit of a single harsh tone.12

While the term "common strain" is not specifically defined by Holden, it appears to carry the meaning in context of ordinary or unexceptional. With this meaning, it would be a phrase that neither bore directive terms nor suggested any special interpretation. Thus such a strain would probably be sung at a level between loud and soft, which today might be termed mezzoforte.13 This, then, appears to be the median for singing the choral music without any dynamic markings. What then do piano and forte mean in relation to it? Few psalmodists address the question, but Samuel Holyoke appears to provide an answer:

When the word Soft is placed over a tune, the sound should be about half as strong as common. When the word Loud occurs, the sound should be full, but not harsh.14

The different strains of a psalm tune may have incorporated implied dynamic contrasts, as Simeon Jocelin recommends:

In general single tunes [i.e., tunes of only four strains] call for the piano on the third line, and double tunes [i.e., tunes of eight strains, usually setting two stanzas of text] on the two lines which precede the two last.15

Thus it appears that the first two phrases of a four-phrase tune, lacking any other dynamic marking, might be sung mezzoforte, the third phrase piano, and the final phrase mezzoforte again.

Dynamics appear to have been applied in blocks in the tunes, which the psalmodists constructed in distinct phrases according to the structure of the text. In homophonic tunes, where the text is sung simultaneously in all voices, the same texture is usually maintained throughout the strain. The number of parts may vary from one to four between strains but will seldom change within the strain itself.16 If a duet texture begins the phrase, it will be retained until its end; another voice will not usually enter before the beginning of the next strain. As Jocelin implied in the quotation given above, the dynamic level that pertains at the beginning of a strain usually lasts the whole phrase but does not necessarily carry over into the following phrase.

When fewer than four voices are singing the dynamic level is usually lower than when the full choir sings, as Daniel Read noted:

A solo should be generally sung softer and the chorus which follows louder than the rest of the music.17

Solo, in this case, does not mean a single voice but a whole section of a choir, as the following passage from William Billings makes clear. In order to achieve a soft sound with relatively untrained voices, Billings recommended a reduction in the number of voices singing:

Much caution should be used in singing a Solo, in my opinion two or three [voices] at the most are enough to sing it well, it should be sung Soft as an Eccho, in order to keep the Hearers in an agreeable suspense till all parts join together in full chorus, as smart and strong as possible.18

Thus it seems that a dynamic level started at the beginning of a phrase and remained in effect as long as the condition that called for it remained. If, for example, a solo in one voice were followed immediately by a solo in another, both would be sung piano. If, however, a duet passage—analogous to a solo and also to be sung softly—were followed by a phrase in four parts, the full chorus should enter, according to Billings's instructions, ''as smart and as strong as possible."

Oliver Holden, however, noted that the subject of the text could affect the dynamic level at which a solo is sung:

Solos should be sung soft, high notes clear, but not loud, except [as] the subject [of the hymn] requires it.19

Most psalmodists agree that the subject of the text is a major factor in determining the dynamic level of the music. Samuel Holyoke, quoted earlier, listed the subject of the text first among the criteria affecting the dynamics of a passage. Asahel Benham emphasized this:

All psalm tunes ought to be varied in quality of sound and in movement of time, according to the subject of the Psalm; and even [in] verses in which they are sung this way, words will be more suitably expressed, and the same tune appear like different music.20

Along the same lines, Elias Mann noted:

When, therefore, different words or ideas are applied to the same tune, expressive of the various emotions of joy, grief, fear, sorrow, etc., the notes (either by quickening or moderating the time—swelling or softening the voice, etc.) should yield as to sympathize with the subject, otherwise the music will lose its proper effect.21

Simeon Jocelin added:

Regard should also be had to the words; singing strong where the words are suitable, such as might, thunder, etc., and soft where the words are so, as mild, weak, etc.22

From these directions it appears that in the verse of a psalm or hymn that speaks of God's majesty, the music would be loud and forceful; in a verse that speaks of God's mercy, the same music might be soft. It was usually the responsibility of the choir leader to determine the dynamic level and control the singers' response to the words.23

Although most hymns maintain the same subject orientation throughout a whole stanza, occasionally one finds a verse in which a contrast is set, such as this one from Watts's Psalm 99:

The God Jehovah reigns;
Let all the nations fear;
Let sinners tremble at his throne
And saints be humble there.24

The singers of that day might have performed the first two lines, which project God's majesty, loud and the third and fourth lines, which portray man's reactions, soft, even though the setting may be in four parts without dynamic marking.

Although four-phrase tunes are by far the most common in psalmody, one occasionally comes across a tune with five phrases. In this case, most often the final line of the text is repeated, usually to different music. Since the final line often contains the main point of the stanza, this repetition adds emphasis to the words. As Walter Janes noted, repetition calls for a differentiation in dynamics:

Where there is a repetition of the same verse, or line, it should be sung soft the first time, and the next time a little louder, increasing with every repeat, unless there are musical terms to direct otherwise.25

When individual words are repeated they should be sung stronger with each repetition, effecting a crescendo even though none is indicated, as Daniel Read directed:

When words are repeated in music, the strength of the voices should increase every time they are repeated, and when the music is repeated it may be well to sing it louder the second time than the first.26

Along the same lines, Asahel Benham suggested that ejaculatory words such as "Oh," "Ah," "Hark," etc. should be sung with an accent similar to what today might be termed a sforzando:

In some instances, the voice should strike suddenly on a note, and diminish to the end; especially where words of interjection occur, as hark! oh! etc.27

The fuging tune was one of the most popular forms of psalmody in early America. Most composers wrote dozens of them, and most followed a standard pattern. The fuging tune is a psalm tune in which the first two lines of text are usually set homophonically and come to a distinct cadence. The music then makes a new start with the third line of the text set in quasi-imitative counterpoint with one voice leading and the others falling in one after another in fugal fashion. This usually causes the words to be sung at different times in each of the four voices, producing considerable verbal conflict. The polyphony may continue into the fourth line of text, or the verbal conflict may be resolved before reaching the fourth line, which would then be sung homophonically. After having been sung through once, the fuge was normally repeated.28 There were minor variants of the form—for example, where the psalm tune is complete in four strains of homophony, with the last two lines of text repeated in fugal polyphony. Occasionally a fuge would begin a piece rather than end it; however, the form described above was by far the most common.

In performing the fuge, writers agree that the leading part should start softly and, as the other parts enter one by one, the dynamic level of the whole ensemble should increase. As Walter Janes expressed it:

In fuging music, the part that leads should be sung very soft, but distinctly; gradually increasing as the rest of the parts fall in.29

Although the terms crescendo and diminuendo are occasionally found in tunebook glossaries and, as the performance instructions for the fuging tune demonstrate, the concept was known, these directive terms seldom appear in the music itself. There is no evidence to suggest that composers of psalmody intended crescendo and diminuendo to be applied indiscriminately or that a strain marked piano at its outset should increase in volume to a forte strain following it. If used, however, the effect of a crescendo or diminuendo operates until the end of the strain, as Jacob Kimball observed:

Crescendo: This implies that the force of the voice must increase gradually till the strain is ended. Diminuendo: Means the reverse of the foregoing and is sometimes set in opposition to it; when properly performed they make no trifling addition to the beauties of music.30

Although the psalmodists considered it to be a grace (like the trill or appoggiatura) rather than a dynamic marking, the use of the swell on individual notes was apparently widespread. Singers were taught to begin a note softly, crescendo to its midpoint in time, and then diminish to the end. This type of vocal production is described by Asahel Benham:

The swell is a grace very ornamental to music, when well performed. It should be used by first striking the note with a soft voice, then gradually increasing the sound til half the time is expired, then decrease the sound in the same proportion until finished. Hence the semibreve admits of a more extensive swell than a minim; a minim [more] than a crotchet; a crotchet more than a quaver, etc., which is perfectly consistent: For if quavers were to be sounded as full as semibreves ought to be, it would be more like coughing than singing. Though every note should have its swell yet, in my opinion, no one should have two swells but where there are two or more notes of the same syllable. Each should have its distinct swell and that to increase on every note, especially if the other parts are engaging.31

Many psalmodists recommended soft singing as not only an ideal choral sound but also as a method for developing a smooth, agreeable, and flexible singing voice: Samuel Holyoke, for example, wrote:

In soft singing there is power left for maintaining a just expression, a proper accent upon the language, and a smooth flowing melody. By singing within the strength of the voice, and in an easy, agreeable tone, the voice will gradually improve, and become more smooth and pleasing; and on this the singer may hope to become a more graceful and elegant performer.32

A danger in soft singing, however, is that the music, unless carefully controlled and modulated, can become dull and lifeless. Such seems to have been the case with a choir led by Andrew Law, one of the leading proponents of soft singing of the day. Rev. William Bentley, pastor of the East Congregational Church in Salem, Massachusetts, attended a performance given by Law and his students and entered the following comment in his diary:

May 23, 1796. Mr. Law had a Musical Exhibition this evening. . . . He aims to have his music very soft, and the treble is the leading part, not one note of tenour was heard through the Evening. . . . In their attempt to sing soft, many of the voices do not accent the notes so as to enable the ear to distinguish the strains from soft murmurs.33

Singing softly was apparently not a natural attribute of these early singers. It had to be learned in the singing school along with notational symbols and correct pronunciation. The natural tendency of enthusiastic singers was to sing out lustily, and many tunebook compilers cautioned against this practice with admonitions like that of William Billings:

Let each performer attend critically to the strength of his own voice, and not strive to sing louder than the rest of the company; unless he is in the place of the leader.34

Not only could the voices not blend into a satisfactory choral sound if individuals did not modulate their voices but, as Samuel Holyoke suggests, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to bring out the various inflections and emphases suggested by the text:

The singer, by having the strength of his voice under command, and from the various inflections of which it is capable, will be able to express the bold and the temperate, the pleasing and pathetic, the cheerful and melancholy, and in short the various passions of the mind.35

In summary we may say that dynamic contrast, although often unnotated by the psalmodists, played an important part in the performance of their music. Certain guidelines existed, enunciated in the theoretical introductions of the tunebooks, that helped performers decide upon which dynamic levels should be applied at what points in the compositions. The most important determining factor seems to have been the subject of the text being sung. The same music could undergo quite dramatic dynamic changes in accordance with the imagery and meaning of the text. Repetition of words and phrases called for dynamic differentiation. When words were repeated they were sung louder with each reiteration. Words that carried strong images or ejaculatory qualities could be emphasized by applying a stronger accent to them.

Certain musical situations called for variations in the strength of the sound. A passage scored for fewer voices than the full ensemble was to be sung softer. The fuge of a fuging tune was to be started softly in the leading voice, becoming gradually louder as the other voices entered. When the music was repeated, it was to be sung louder the second time than the first.

Dynamic markings, whether supplied or implied, were usually applied in blocks, with the same level of sound maintained throughout the strain or for as long as the situation that called for the dynamic level remained. Crescendo and diminuendo apparently were not used unless specifically called for by the composer or the musical situation (e.g., the fuge of a fuging tune). The strength of the vocal ensemble was to be controlled within a specific dynamic range for good choral singing ("neither so faint as to dwindle into indifference, nor so loud as to admit of a single harsh tone"). Soft singing should not be indistinct, and loud singing should not strain the voice or cause a harsh sound.

These were the ideals; just how far the partially trained singers of the day succeeded in realizing them is difficult to say. There were undoubtedly wide variations in performing competence among church choirs and singing masters. In some places, with good singers and a competent leader, the singing was probably very good; in others, lacking both voices and leadership, it could be far from satisfactory. Whether good or bad, however, the final arbiters of the dynamics of a particular piece were the singers and their leader. They decided how loud or soft to sing at any particular point, according to the subject of the text, the musical situation, the occasion on which the work was performed, and their own musical tastes and judgment.


1Oliver Holden, The Union Harmony (Boston: Thomas & Andrews, 1793), xiv, lists "Mezza Piano. not quite as soft as piano" among the musical terms he defines, but he and other psalmodists rarely used the term.

2Billings, The Suffolk Harmony (Boston: Norman, 1786), 33.

3Andrew Adgate and Ishmael Spicer, The Philadelphia Harmony (Philadelphia: the Authors, [1791]), 51.

4In congregational singing during public worship, where most singers probably sang only the melody, dynamic distinctions probably played little or no part; however, during choir performances in concerts, singing-school exhibitions, and during recreational singing of psalmody, dynamics must have been a necessary part of a successful performance. Simeon Jocelin acknowledged the lack of dynamic differentiation in congregational performance when he wrote: "The Forte and Piano, or alternate singing loud and soft, when judiciously applied, has a pleasing and wonderful effect. How far it may be practicable in congregations to observe this distinction, particular circumstances must determine." (Simeon Jocelin, Chorister's Companion, 2d ed. [New Haven: the Author, 1788], 17).

5David Merrill, The Psalmodist's Best Companion (Exeter: Ranlet, 1799), 7.

6Jacob Kimball, The Rural Harmony (Boston: Thomas & Andrews, 1793), ix.

7Oliver Holden, The Worcester Collection of Sacred Harmony, 6th ed. (Boston: Thomas & Andrews, 1797), vii.

8Samuel Holyoke, The Columbian Repository of Sacred Music (Exeter: Ranlet, [1802]), xxii.

9The printing of tunebooks from moveable type began in New England in 1786 with The Worcester Collection of Sacred Harmony issued by Isaiah Thomas in Worcester, Mass. Prior to that time, tunebooks had been printed from engraved plates. Thomas was the only printer in New England to have music type until about 1795, when other printers acquired it. During the 1790s it was common to find tunebooks printed from either medium. Beginning about 1800, type began to replace engraved plates, so that by about 1810 it is rare to find a tunebook still printed from engraved plates. See Karl Kroeger, "Isaiah Thomas as a Music Publisher," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 86 (1976):328-29.

10The composer or compiler of a tunebook was often many miles away from the press that printed his tunebook. For example, Supply Belcher was living in Farmington, Maine, when his The Harmony of Maine was published by Thomas & Andrews in Boston. Even more distant was Amos Pilsbury, living in Charleston, South Carolina, when the same firm issued his The United States Sacred Harmony. To think that a busy firm like Thomas & Andrews, who had only a limited quantity of music type in the first place, could afford to leave the pages of a tunebook set up while proofsheets were sent by boat or mailcoach to the distant author is not credible. Even Daniel Read in New Haven, Connecticut, apparently did not proofread pages for his The Columbian Harmonist, the second edition of which was published in Dedham, Massachusetts in 1804, as his complaining letter to his brother, Joel Read, of 8 April 1805 demonstrates. See Irving Lowens, "Daniel Read's World," in his Music and Musicians in Early America (New York: Norton, 1964), 169-70.

11In many tunebooks, strains are marked off by double bars (see, for example, William Billings's The New-England Psalm-Singer [Boston: Edes & Gill, 1770]). Supply Belcher noted in the theoretical introduction of his The Harmony of Maine (Boston: Thomas & Andrews, 1795), 10, that "A Double Bar shews the end of a strain."

12Holden, Union Harmony, xiii.

13Amos Pilsbury, The United States Sacred Harmony (Boston: Thomas & Andrews, 1799), 13, lists "Mezza Voce" as "between Forte and Piano."

14Samuel Holyoke, The Christian Harmonist (Salem, Mass.: Cushing, 1804), 5. Holden, Union Harmony, xiii, notes that "in performing fortes and fortissimos, the voice should not be extended beyond its natural elevation; in performing pianos the voice should be reduced to as small a degree of sound, as will just admit of intelligible pronunciation."

15Jocelin, Chorister's Companion, 17. Jocelin credits these directions to Ralph Harrison's Sacred Harmony (London: Williams, 1783).

16Changes in texture at half a strain are occasionally found, but these are rare.

17Daniel Read, The American Singing Book (New Haven: the Author, 1785), 24.

18Billings, New-England Psalm-Singer, as quoted in The Complete Works of William Billings, 2 vols. to date (Boston: The American Musicological Society and The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1977- ), 1:31. Similar recommendations for reducing the performing forces in passages marked piano are also found in The Village Harmony, 5th ed. (Exeter: Ranlet, 1800), x, and Kimball's Rural Harmony, xv, which adds that "the additional strength of their voices in the forte, which generally precedes or succeeds the piano, would mark the contrast more distinctly, and give peculiar force and energy to the performance."

19Holden, Union Harmony, xiii.

20Asahel Benham, The Social Harmony ([Wallingford, Conn., 1798]), 13.

21Elias Mann, The Northampton Collection of Sacred Harmony, 2d ed. (Northampton: Wright, 1802), [3].

22Jocelin, Chorister's Companion, 17.

23The choir leader in eighteenth-century America did not lead the choir from in front of it, as the director does today, but from within it. Each choir member kept his or her own beat by raising and lowering the hand. The choir leader was principally responsible for choosing the tune to be sung, setting the pitch, and controlling the singing by his voice and gestures. Although all of this was the leader's responsibility, he often had help (sometimes unwelcome) from choir members. For a lighthearted view of the role of the leader in a New England village church choir, see Samuel Gilman, Memoirs of a New-England Village Choir (Boston: Goodrich, 1829; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1984), 24-35.

24Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (London: Rivington, 1787), Psalm 99, verse 1. The collection was originally published in 1719.

25Walter Janes, The Harmonic Minstrelsy (Dedham: Mann, 1807), [12].

26Read, American Singing Book, 24.

27Benham, Social Harmony, 13.

28See Irving Lowens, "The Origins of the American Fuging-Tune" in his Music and Musicians in Early America, 240-41. See also Nicholas Temperley and Charles G. Manns, Fuging Tunes in the Eighteenth Century (Detroit: Information Coordinators, 1983), 3-54, for a more up-to-date historical sketch of the fuging tune's development.

29Janes, Harmonic Minstrelsy, [12].

30Kimball, Rural Harmony, ix.

31Asahel Benham, The Federal Harmony (Middletown, Conn.: Woodward, 1790), 11-12. Holden, Union Harmony, xi, says, "A semibreve should be struck soft, gently swelled to the center, and diminished to the end. A number of long notes driven through [i.e., tied across] the bars, should be sounded full and smooth to the end." Holden says nothing about swelling notes shorter than the semibreve.

32Holyoke, Columbian Repository, xxii.

33William Bentley, Diary, II, 184-85, as quoted in Richard Crawford, Andrew Law, American Psalmodist (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 132.

34William Billings, The Singing Master's Assistant (Boston: Draper & Folsom, 1778) as quoted in The Complete Works of William Billings, 2:19.

35Holyoke, Columbian Repository, xxii.

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