Musical Notes | Newberry

Musical Notes

Of course, once I presented that column about subjects which take precedence—a book about Chicago sports goes into Chicago, not sports—readers immediately began to think of items I had left out. “Don’t books with recipes wind up in cookbooks, whatever the book is about?” someone demanded. That is true in the case of diet books which have thirty pages of medical advice and a hundred pages of recipes, but not in the case of mysteries which have romances thrown in here and there for added luster. AND they came up with exceptions: a book in a foreign language almost always goes into Foreign Language, as mentioned hereintofore, but this is not true of opera libretti. A libretto is often in another language, sometimes without translaton, but it goes among all the other libretti in the Music section. Opera covers a multitude of sins, in fact, since such books could be considered Mystery or Romance, or Drama, or Poetry, or even Show Biz. In fact, just about anything connected with opera winds up in Music.

With made me think, in a season dominated by our Religious Change exhibition, of hymnals. A lot of people expect hymnals to be in the Religion section, since the big, heavy hymnals most in use in this country include orders of service and other liturgical concerns. “But if it’s got musical notes in it, it goes into Music, right?” said a volunteer who got the concept.

That is true, as far as it goes, but one mustn’t ignore the fact that our ancestors frequently made do with hymnals which did NOT have musical notes. Members of a congregation did not necessarily read music, so it was cheaper simply to print the lyrics. Whatever musical accompaniment they had, even if this comprised simply one person in the congregation with a very loud singing voice, was trusted to memory. An organist or choir leader knew dozens of basic hymn tunes, and many of these musicless hymnals included a word just under the title like “Jeremiah”. The choir leader then knew this hymn was to be sung to the tune of “Jeremiah”, and could get the song going. Anyone who had sung with the group long enough would know at least enough to think, “Ah, this one. I can hit all the low notes in this one” and sing with confidence.

These books are noted more for their portability—small, thick books in tiny print—than for their beauty. And they are generally well-worn, from frequent use and, one presumes, frequent sharing with the next person in the pew. (Though with such small print, it’s hard to say how useful this was.)

Another line of books not noted for attractive design is the revival hymnal. The Newberry has a goodly collection of these, going back I know not how far, and the genre has continued nearly to the present. These were mass-produced and sold to people who attended services by travelling evangelists who could draw a crowd. Such preachers generated hymns (many of our major evangelists had hymn writers on staff) and the gatherings, sometimes in the thousands, enjoyed joining in on a rousing song written to reflect the basic themes of the sermons involved. These are generally, in the early years, books longer than they were tall, so the music could be presented in a clear and easy-to-read fashion. One wanted people to keep singing the songs long after the preacher and company had moved on, and this format was easy to use, both for the singer and for the organist who wanted to vary the repertoire.

Organists are still one of our major markets for old hymnals. Word goes around among professional organ players: this hymnal has pages which are hard to keep open (some hymnal publishers actually produce a separate version in a ring binding just for organists). Others were prepared by people who understand arranging music for an organist who may run up against head clergy or choirmasters who say “I don’t want those same old hymns every Sunday; let’s use the ones you haven’t played before.” And so certain hymnals are in greater demand, though the publishers might not care to know the demand is for “That green one” or “You know: the red one.”

No, we will NOT sort the hymnals by color within Music. It’s hard enough keeping them all in Music.

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