The tune NEW BRITAIN, usually used to set the hymn “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” is at once one of the most popular hymn settings in Protestant worship today, and also one of the most popular hymn settings at shape-note singings. For this reason, it is a perfect candidate for a hymn that can bring together church choirs and shape-note singers.
However, on closer inspection there are incompatibilities between shape-note publications and Protestant hymnals as to how this tune is set. Namely:
- In shape-note books, the second phrase (“That saved a wretch like me…”) does not have a hold at the end of the phrase.
- In Protestant hymnals, the third phrase (“I once was lost, but now am found…”) is considerably different from what is found in shape-note books. (See comparison above.) This alteration is attributed to Edwin O. Excell.
- In shape-note books, the stanza beginning “When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” which was added to the hymn at a later date, is not provided (though I have heard it sung from memory at Sacred Harp conventions).
So what do you do if you are bringing together shape-note singers and a church congregation?
- You can say that the shape-note setting is the “authentic” version, and the denominational hymnal an inferior alteration. But then, you would have to teach the congregation a version of the melody different from what many members have been singing since childhood.
- You can say that the denominational hymnal is an improvement over the “primitive” shape-note setting. But then, the shape-note singers will have to discard their harmony parts.
- You can identify what is best in each setting, preserve differences that can be preserved, and make pragmatic decisions about how to handle differences that require either-or choices. Neither version is “better” or “more advanced”; they are simply different. This is the route I have taken in preparing The Liturgical Harp, and my setting of NEW BRITAIN makes a perfect demonstration of what this volume has to offer.
Here is my setting of NEW BRITAIN (click to enlarge). New Britain Sample (PDF)
Here are some features to notice:
- The main melody (tenor part) is given in the altered version found in current Protestant hymnals, so that congregations can sing it easily.
- For the first, second, and fourth phrases, the harmony parts are identical to those in the shape-note collections Christian Harmony and The Sacred Harp.
- For the third phrase, the harmony parts have been rewritten to complement the altered main melody, but still in the style of shape-note settings.
- The tune is notated at an absolute pitch suitable for congregational singing, in case there is not an experienced singer able to pitch by ear.
- The tune is notated in shapes so that it can be sung at any pitch level, when an experienced pitcher is available and instrumental accompaniment is not necessary.
- The stanza beginning “When we’ve been there ten thousand years” is provided.