Henry Cowell’s Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10: Early American Strains

Among the twentieth century’s boldest and most innovate musical mavericks was the American composer, Henry Cowell (1897-1965).

Cowell’s occasionally riot-inducing experiments included tone clusters (approaching the piano keyboard with arms and fists), graphic notation, polytonality, non-Western modes, and “a complex pitch-rhythm system that correlated the mathematical ratios of the pitches of the overtone series with rhythmic proportions.” (Richard Teitelbaum) Cowell treated the piano as a percussion instrument. Through “prepared piano” techniques, and by plucking and strumming the piano’s strings, he revealed haunting new tone colors. His students included Lou Harrison, John Cage, George Gershwin, and Burt Bacharach. Charles Ives was one of Cowell’s most fervent supporters. In 1928, as a teacher at the New School for Social Research in New York, Henry Cowell offered one of the first courses in world music. Appropriately, he once declared, “I want to live in the whole world of music.”

In a future post, we will revel in the wilder side of Cowell’s music. Now, let’s hear the serene and pastoral Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10 for oboe and string orchestra, composed in 1955. It is one of 18 such pieces of varying instrumentation that Cowell wrote between 1944 and 1964. According to the composer, the piece draws on the free-spirited music “of Southern Revival meetings in which popular minstrel show rhythms were turned to religious purposes…. The tunes of course are my own.”

A “fuguing tune” (not to be confused with a fugue) is a kind of vernacular choral music which emerged in England and American in the eighteenth century. Written in four parts, and sung a cappella, the style draws on Protestant hymns. The musicologist, George Pullen Jackson, offered the following description:

In the fuging tune all the parts start together and proceed in rhythmic and harmonic unity usually for the space of four measures or one musical sentence. The end of this sentence marks a cessation, a complete melodic close. During the next four measures the four parts set in, one at a time and one measure apart. First the basses take the lead for a phrase a measure long, and as they retire on the second measure to their own proper bass part, the [tenors] take the lead with a sequence that is imitative of, if not identical with, that sung by the basses. The tenors in turn give way to the altos, and they to the trebles, all four parts doing the same passage (though at different pitches) in imitation of the [part in the] preceding measure. … Following this fuguing passage comes a four-measure phrase, with all the parts rhythmically neck and neck, and this closes the piece; though the last eight measures are often repeated.

You can hear this imitative contrapuntal process blossom, thrillingly, in the second section of the piece. This recording features oboist Humbert Lucarelli with conductor Richard Auldon Clark and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra. Lucarelli, once hailed by the New York Times as “America’s leading oboe recitalist,” passed away last week at the age of 87.

William Billings: Creation 

Born in colonial New England, William Billings is regarded as the first American choral composer. It was a nineteenth century collection of hymns titled Southern Harmony, as well as the earlier work of Billings which inspired Henry Cowell to write his Hymn and Fuguing Tunes. Billings’ Creation, a loose setting of Psalm 139 published in the 1794 collection, The Continental Harmony, provides a spirited example of the fuguing tune.


  • Cowell: Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10 for oboe and string orchestra, HC 813, Humbert Lucarelli, Richard Auldon Clark, Manhattan Chamber Orchestra Amazon
  • Billings: Creation (The Continental Harmony), Paul Hillier, His Majestie’s Clerkes Amazon

Featured Image: “Missouri Farm” (1970), Roger Medearis

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

1 thought on “Henry Cowell’s Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10: Early American Strains”

  1. Thank you for posting. The Hymn seems especially evocative and attractive. Humbert Lucarelli plays wonderfully; his recording of John Corigliano’s oboe concerto is equally superb. I’m very sorry to learn of his passing last week.


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