The song “Amazing Grace” has a history as remarkable as its popularity being among America’s most well-known and recorded pieces of music. The story begins with John Newton, an English sailor-man who underwent a Christian conversion after experiencing the trials of life on the sea. Starting a new life as a Preacher, Newton focused on writing hymns to amplify the message of his sermons.
In 1772 Newton composed the original hymn, “Amazing Grace” which contained six stanzas; the first 3 emphasize his separation from and journey to finding God, the later stanzas evolve to show God’s greatness as the source for grace in times of trial. The hymn was first heard on New Year’s Day in 1773, but the familiar words weren’t sung to the tune we know and love today. In fact “Amazing Grace” has been associated with over 20 different melodies since its creation.
In 1835 Newton’s lyrics were paired with the familiar melody, known then as “New Britain,” and was published in a songbook, The Southern Harmony, by singing instructor William Walker. However in 1910, the song was re-published with only the first three of Newton’s stanzas and was paired with a new, fourth stanza by songwriter and publisher, Edwin Othello Excell, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…”.
John Newton says, “[In America], the conversion experience is more prominent… It seems to be the definitive song of the personal conversion experience.” Sure enough, “Amazing Grace” climbed into great popularity eventually breaking out of the sacred music genre with its great influence in folk music and as an African American Spiritual. With the “power to transform” and to heal, the song reached the pop charts in the U.K. the U.S. when Judy Collins released her version 1971 and it is estimated to be performed about 10 million times a year.
Judy was really in to this song!
The Phoenix Chorale’s upcoming concert “Amazing Grace” features the titled song in various forms though you will never miss the familiar tune or words in any of the renditions. Ēriks Ešenvalds, born in 1977, has become a highly awarded Latvian composer. His ethereal, floating harmonies give a heavenly lightness to the heavy hearted lyrics of “Amazing Grace”. Published in 2007, Ešenvalds included John Newton’s neglected 4th verse in his expansive rendition of the song. The addition of the verse is meant to clarify the meaning and source of grace.
Hyowon Woo presents a new musical vision in choral music and has presented a great contribution to the development of choral music in Korea. After graduating from Sungshin Women’s University in 1995, her fresh creativity led her to the position of composer residencies of Seoul Ladies’ Singers in 1995, and later to Inchon City Chorale in 1999. These collaborations earned her the reputation as a specialist of new choral compositional techniques. Her open harmonies give a
different, cultural feel to the American standard, leaving space for Woo to create the illusion of a new environment all together.
Don’t miss your chance to hear immerse yourself in the incredibly deep history behind “Amazing Grace” at the Phoenix Chorale concert this weekend. We are pairing up with folk band Run Boy Run for an exciting concert filled with your favorite spirituals, hymn and gospel songs as well as a fun and beautiful set of bluegrass influence folk tunes. Tickets are going fast – I can’t wait to see the story behind the song come alive this weekend!