Nym Cooke began studying shape-note music over forty years ago as an undergraduate at Harvard, and it is not an overstatement to claim that he has made this study his life’s work and himself among the foremost authorities on the subject. Beginning his research in 1976, he has sung every one of the 5,000 pieces published in American tunebooks through 1810, researched the composers’ biographies, and determined not only how the music should be presented in print, but also how it might best be performed in person. American Harmony, his magnum opus, is the result: a selection of the cream of early American choral music, here published in two volumes, the first covering New England compositions from 1770 to 1815, the second volume covering a wide range of locations from 1813 to the present. Containing full musical scores and underlaid, complete verses for 176 pieces of music, 100 illustrations, over 100 pages of biographical information about composers and musical arrangers, and five indices, this is the ultimate reference work on the subject, a book that belongs on the shelf of every serious music library, performer and student. Also included is a cd with recordings of 35 pieces performed by the author’s own chorus, not coincidentally called ‘American Harmony.’ In addition to the music, the author’s historical introduction and detailed critical commentary provide context, and the two sewn volumes, contained in a sturdy slipcase, make this edition both singable and portable. Four years in the making, this is among the most outrageously elaborate and ambitious books ever undertaken by this small house, and believe us; that’s saying something.
The uniquely American language of early psalmody has never been so powerfully represented as in this splendid anthology. Nym Cooke not only draws on his unrivalled knowledge of early New England music, but shows how its special character has survived until today through all the vicissitudes of Western musical culture.
Nicholas Temperley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Nym Cooke’s American Harmony, clearly a lifetime labor of learning and love, is an anthology aimed especially at people who relish choral singing in the psalmody vein. A New England-based scholar and choral director steeped in a homegrown tradition of sacred composing from pre-Revolutionary days to the present, Cooke offers authoritative scores of 176 of his favorite pieces, plus advice on how you might sing them and what you should know about the lives of the psalmodists who wrote them.
Richard Crawford, author of America’s Musical Life: A History
This is fine music, rigorously and faithfully edited, with suggestions for performance and detailed sketches of the composers, often including portraits or facsimiles of their work. The selections from the New England repertory are unusually varied, based on Cooke’s unparalleled knowledge of the five thousand surviving pieces from that era. American Harmony is the culmination of a lifetime of study, and represents the compiler’s favorite examples of the genre; many singers will find new favorites here as well.
David Warren Steel, University of Mississippi
Nym Cooke has assembled a collection of early American choral gems with an eye for both singers and scholars. Of particular note is the inclusion of an assortment of folk hymns from the early 19th century, culled from the shape-note books of Wyeth and Davisson. Tunes from Walker’s Southern Harmony and from The Sacred Harp—some classic favorites and some not so well known—are here as well. Many of the book’s pieces have multiple verses underlaid, and appear in their original harmonizations, taken from earliest printings. In short, this collection presents a welcome and firmly grounded jumping-off point for ongoing study and performance of this important body of American musical literature.
Thomas B. Malone