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Nineteenth-century US hymnody’s fascination with classical music

The aria Zerlina sings to Masetto, her fiancée, late in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni is a study in sexual innuendo.

Masetto’s just received a brutal beating from the Don (whose lascivious designs on Zerlina were only narrowly averted). But if Masetto will come home with her now, Zerlina coaxes, she’s ready to administer her own pleasant balm. It’s a natural cure, she says, that she carries with her everywhere. One no chemist can make. Just as erotic undercurrents threaten to surface (“Do you want to know where I keep it?”), out comes Zerlina’s final line, revealing that her beating heart is all she was talking about. But it’s a punchline, comical and self-aware. Zerlina knows no one thought she was talking about her heart.

However risqué it may have seemed at its 1787 premiere, this aria is unlikely to strike many opera-goers today as particularly indecent.

What’s much more likely to seem indecent today is this melody’s appearance in the 1856 American collection The Sabbath Bell, edited by George F. Root (listen here). In The Sabbath Bell, Mozart’s tune appears much as Zerlina sang it, but matched with different words:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
Guide where the infant Redeemer is laid…

What gives? How could it ever have seemed like a good idea to set one of the most familiar Christmas hymns in the English language to a tune intended by Mozart (a genius at close-binding music to drama) as a vehicle for a seductive outpouring of double-entendre?

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, American audiences ate this sort of thing up. Hymnody was the best-selling form of American popular music through most of this era—Lowell Mason’s 1841 sacred collection Carmina Sacra may briefly have been the best-selling music publication in history, with sales around 500,000. And in a mounting wave that began around 1820, hymnodic adaptations of classical music abounded. Hundreds appeared.

A few survive today. Millions still sing “Joyful, joyful we adore thee” to a subject from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony first published as a hymn tune in New York in 1846. But the vast majority are long forgotten.

And it’s a tough repertoire to know what to do with today.

Simply heaping scorn—or at least patronizing bemusement—on the whole notion of radically repurposing tunes plucked from operas or symphonies amounts to a kind of amnesia. In the early 19th century, classical music circulated in the US mostly through excerpts, which were subject to all manner of simplifying, repackaging, and retexting. Full-blown US performances of operas and symphonies were comparatively rare, but isolated tunes tumbled forth from them as freely (if not as frequently) as hit songs disentangled themselves from Broadway shows a century later.

Another reason it’s tough to dismiss these hymnodic adaptations out of hand, though, is that they often work really well.

True, they routinely ask tunes to participate in communicating sentiments far removed from those their composers intended. But most music is nimble that way. The “meanings” music bears are usually general—tied less to things than to feelings or impressions, evocative rather than denotative, inclined to polyvalence. Even palpably descriptive music usually relies on lyrics, titles, or other representational media to tell us what it’s actually describing. John Williams’s Jaws score may be unsurpassed as a translation of a shark attack into tones, but it’s still unlikely to suggest “shark” to a listener wholly unfamiliar with the movie.

And for a listener unfamiliar with Mozart’s Don Giovanni—to return to our starting point—the music of Zerlina’s seductive aria is apt to work superbly as a setting of “Brightest and best.” Grasping why involves digging more deeply into what Zerlina’s music actually meant in the first place.

Mozart’s artistic world was organized around a lexicon of musical “topics”: characteristic figures, styles, and rhythms rich with associations (vaguely akin to what we call “genres” in modern pop-songs—country, dubstep, metalcore, and so on). Zerlina’s aria partakes of the “pastoral” topic, recognizable in the basses’ fixation on one note, the triple meter, and the gentle, parallel motion of the top two voices. The pastoral topic’s deepest associations were with idyllic outdoor scenes, but by Mozart’s time, it routinely stood for generalized, idealized innocence.

Thus, Zerlina’s words are about physical intimacy, but her music is not. Her music is about why physical intimacy stands, for Zerlina and Masetto, to be redemptive. Her pastoral pose reassures Masetto that, despite Don Giovanni’s drive to corrupt, the innocence of conjugal bliss remains intact for them, unsullied and within reach.

Reassigning Zerlina’s pastoral tune to a Christian nativity scene like “Brightest and best” doesn’t just work. It brings the pastoral topic home. Talk of livestock in the hymn’s second verse (“Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall”) returns us directly to the meaning of the Latin word “pastor”: “shepherd.” And the baby whose head lies there would grow up, after all, to invite his followers to think of him as “the good shepherd” (John 10:11 and 10:14). Most important, that generalized sense of the embrace of innocence, even in the face of corruption, that served Zerlina so well takes on cosmological resonances for the Christian singing this hymn.

Not all of those hymnodic adaptations 19th-century Americans so adored work as well as this one. But many do. There’s a great deal of resourcefulness and artistic sensitivity in them. Indeed, one wonders if this whole repertoire might, like Zerlina and Masetto themselves, deserve a second chance.

Feature image by Michael Maasen

Recent Comments

  1. Graham Martin

    This may have been commoner in the 18th century.
    From my Methodist boyhood I remember Charles Wesley being quoted in church
    “Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?” and
    “Methodism was born in song”

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