The nineteenth century witnessed the rapid rise and gentle decline of an unprecedented vogue, particularly in the English-speaking world, for crafting hymn tunes from the work of Europe's most revered composers. Indeed, through the widely circulated publications of Lowell Mason and several like-minded American editors, it was in the form of hymnody that the European classical tradition reached a substantial part of the American population for the first time.
After setting forth broadly the historical underpinnings of such adaptations' dissemination, this study seeks to bring an unprecedented critical focus to the examination of a much-maligned repertoire through an exploration of the hymn tunes based on the work of one of its leading beneficiaries, Felix Mendelssohn. Gathered here are fifty-eight hymn tunes drawn from Mendelssohn's work, capturing what appears (based on a survey of 250 tune books and hymnals) to be the entry point of each particular melody into the American hymn repertoire. This body of music permits us not only to explore a multiplicity of approaches to the adaptation process itself, but to articulate a set of fundamental shifts that appear to have occurred in the genre as the nineteenth century wore on. From the late 1850s onward, we see not only a markedly heightened eagerness to adhere, in the adaptation process, to Mendelssohn's compositional will, but a pronounced move in the selection of melodic material away from the adventurous, catch-as-catch-can breadth of the mid-century publications toward tunes drawn from a more tightly circumscribed body of works that were coming to enjoy an established place in the concert repertoire at large.