2015-11-15 Notes from the Bench

“Amazing Grace” by John Newton

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


Today at All Saints’ we celebrate Seabury Sunday, remembering the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, Samuel Seabury. During our 9:00 and 11:00 am liturgies, the Mesa Caledonian Pipe Band will offer the processional and recessional music and accompany the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

Amazing Grace was written by the English poet and Anglican clergyman, John Newton (1725-1807) and published in 1779 in Olney Hymns. Newton was pressed to serve the British Royal Navy and became involved with the Atlantic slave trade. During a violent storm off the coast of Ireland in 1748, Newton prayed for God’s mercy and protection, a moment that marked his spiritual conversion. When writing “Amazing Grace”, he drew upon his own experience of conversion to write a text that enshrines the universal truths of salvation. The fifth verse was not written by Newton, but is by an anonymous author that was added to Newton’s text in various American hymn collections and is now the settled final stanza of this hymn. “Amazing Grace” was sung extensively in the United States during the “Second Great Awakening” of the early nineteenth century and has been included in American hymnals for over 150 years. This text has been translated into numerous languages and adapted into multiple cultural styles. “Amazing Grace” first appeared in an Episcopal hymn in the 1981 supplement, Lift Every Voice and Sing and followed up by its inclusion in The Hymnal 1982.




“Amazing Grace” has been sung with various melodies prior to its close association with the melody, “New Britain.” The history of “New Britain” can be traced back to the early nineteenth century where it first appeared in various forms and with various titles in American shape-note hymnals (a style of music notion where the shape of the note-heads in addition to their position on the lines and spaces of the staff indicate pitch). It was in William Walker’s hymnbook Southern Harmony, published in 1835, that Newton’s text was linked with the melody titled “New Britain.” “New Britain” is a pentatonic tune, meaning there are only five pitches (not including the octave) that comprise this melody. This melody may be played using only the black keys of the piano. Many other early nineteenth-century American folk-hymn tunes are pentatonic or near-pentatonic melodies.

The Scottish Great Highland bagpipes are the best-known type of bagpipes, however, bagpipes are known throughout Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa and North America. The history of the bagpipes can be traced back to the pre-Roman Empire era through textual descriptions and visual depictions of the period and spread throughout the ancient world. The Scottish Great Highland bagpipes became known worldwide during the expansion of the British Empire that included Highland military regiments who played the pipes. The instrument consists of a bag that is an air reservoir, drone pipes that produces constant harmonizing notes, and the chanter, the melody pipe, that piper plays with their fingers. A typical chanter pipe can produce up to nine pitches with a range of an octave, plus one note. “Amazing Grace” is the type of melody that “fits” the limited melodic capabilities of the bagpipes; pipers frequently play “Amazing Grace” for various occasions, especially funeral or memorial services.

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