Crowdsourcing: Name This Hymn

We need your help identifying the sound from a home recording made, we believe, over a hundred years ago. This test is quite distinct from the one we proffered in The Big Sleuth, where we knew the contents of the cylinder’s audio that is drowning in a sea of noise but wanted to see if you could figure it out. On this one, the sound is crystal clear, but we have no idea what the song is that’s being sung. We aren’t even sure it’s in English.

It’s a brown-wax concert cylinder (the large, 5-inch diameter type), which means it can’t be any earlier than 1898. Based on the group of cylinders it was found with, we believe it is a recording by the Rittersville Church Choir, from Rittersville (now incorporated into Allentown), Pennsylvania. In any case, it’s definitely a chorale of multiple mixed voices, and we know it’s a sacred selection because the one word that can clearly be made out is the double “Amen” sung at the end.

The problem with doing an acoustic recording of a group of people, on even the best wax records—and this one is done exceptionally well—is that the sound ends up muddy and indistinct. The notes are clear, but the words are not. By the way, the cylinder and the box top picture above come from the David Giovannoni Collection. This is the fully restored audio—sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it?

We’ve checked with all our experts, including Rusty McKinney, the church music director who helped us identify a similar field recording of a choir from 1897. That one turned out to be an aria from Haydn’s Creation, the earliest known recording of anything from that grand oratorio. So, please, send this to all your friends, and have them redistribute (that means you, Caroline), and maybe together we can figure out what this beautiful song is!

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8 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing: Name This Hymn

  1. I have listened to the mystery hymn several times and am hearing the phrase, “we shall all get through ?”…..can’t make out the last word of the phrase , but the hymn begins with this phrase and ends with it. Perhaps this will help in solving the mystery.

    • Thanks for the detective work! I think hear the part that you mean… but I’m not sure I hear those words.

      If we didn’t make it clear in the blog post, let us say that it is a technological reason we are all having trouble making out any of the words. The choir singing into the horn was doing so from a distance, resulting in muddy, indistinct words. The tone of the singers is there, but the “formants” on the words didn’t register loudly enough.

      A professional recording artist would have stood right in front of the horn, even leaning his head into the bell in order that the sound of his voice would make a clear, loud, and distinct impression onto the wax cylinder–so that every word would be intelligible.

      The commercial companies did not, as far as we know, attempt this kind of group recording at that time, for precisely these reasons. This is an amateur recording, and the machine, the horn, and the on-site engineering provisions they used were probably nowhere close to commercial grade.

  2. The song is most definitely in German, with some lines very clearly stating “Wir erwarten dich Herr, Ich erwarte dir Herr” Getting the entire text was near impossible (myself and a native German speaker), and unfortunately what does come through are relatively commonly stated phrases like “Herr alle mein Gedanken” and such. The native German I worked with suggests that the choir’s pronounciation is so odd that he thinks they are English speakers who have simply learned something in German. He also says, and I agree, that the music sounds unAmerican, much more like Southern German “bauernmesse” pieces. You’ve got something that either is a piece of folk congregational music or is an arrangement based on that. I don’t know anything about the Ritterville Choir, but I do agree that you should chase down the German heritage vs Low German/Anabaptist connections. Suggestions: #1 getting a native German hymn scholar/linguist, #2 contact a Mennonite and Moravian hymn scholar.

    –Dr. Deborah Justice, Syracuse University

  3. The language sounds like “Pennsilfanish” to me, the language of the Pennsylvania Germans (Pennsylvania “Dutch”), which is still spoken in the areas around Allentown. Perhaps you should email the Pennsylvania German Society. Their website is http://www.pgs.org.

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