Notes on Amazing Grace
by Rachel Segal, Photo of Jennifer Higdon by J. Henry Fair
First heard by the public on New Years Day, 1773, the original hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by former slave ship captain and slave trader John Newton, later ordained by the Church of England. It was published in 1779 but wasn’t heard in the United States until the early 19th century, and was set to the now-famous tune of “New Britain” in 1835. The irony that a famous spiritual was penned by a former slave trader is not lost on us. This is a piece that can easily move a listener to tears without knowing why, and its history of catharsis may be unmatched by any other piece of music.
Jennifer Higdon’s deeply personal and moving setting of Amazing Grace is not what you would expect from a piece written in 1998. Originally composed as part of the larger vocal choir work Southern Grace, the string quartet version was arranged for the Ying Quartet. A lush and classically tonal theme and variations, it moves through different tempi without pause, creating a feeling of inertia and momentum, until it finally comes back to rest in the coda.
Jennifer has given me permission to include that this was the first piece of music she wrote after her younger brother’s death, and it still holds both solace and grief for her.
A short documentary on the history of Amazing Grace: