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Performance Practice of Early American Hymnody: Tempo and the “Moods of Time”

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Modern time signatures indicate metrical organization in notated music. However, in most American hymnals and psalters published between 1721 and 1809, time signatures also signify very specific tempi. This notational practice, further removed from modern usage than any other element of this music, derives from proportional notations abandoned in art music in the seventeenth century. As technically complex music was published using this notation in the 1760s, these time signatures began to be used more subtly. In combination, they provide metrical effects unlike those possible with modern time signatures: doubling or halving tempo, or maintaining the pulse while altering its division or larger metric organization. Viewed from the perspective of modern notation, these functions diverge from their appearance. This article clarifies the correlation between time signature and tempo indicated in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American tunebooks (hymnals), arguing for its inclusion in modern performances of this repertoire. Internal evidence and related pedagogical practices suggest these tempi were intended to be observed; most early American theorists, composers, and compilers advocated adherence. Any revival of repertoire first published in this notation, including the works of such composers as William Billings, Daniel Read, and Supply Belcher, would profit by observing these tempi. In a repertoire frequently devoid of interpretive markings, time signatures provide invaluable clues to performers.


Hymnody, Performance Practice, Tempo, Dispersed Harmony

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