American missionaries arrived in the islands in 1820. It did not take them long to garner the support of powerful ruling chiefs, especially the influential Queen Ka‘ahumanu. Among their labors was the one thing that would alter Hawaiian performance practices irreversibly–the introduction of hymns, together with the rudiments of western music to sing the hymns “properly,” and literacy in the musical staff notation. When a printing press was set up in 1823, the first imprint was an alphabet for the Hawaiian language. This was followed by a collection of hymn texts in Hawaiian, translated from English by the missionaries.
The early integration of repertoire and musical notation had lasting effects on Hawaiians. Beloved himeni are sung at gatherings, and are recorded on commercial albums by top entertainers regularly.
While literacy in musical staff notation appeared to be not uncommon by the late 19th century, over the 20th century notational literacy had declined, to the point where the inability to read staff notation has become a point of pride since the cultural resurgence of the 1970s. Any close look at the prolific output of hymnals over the 19th century, however, does give occasion to marvel at how Hawaiians then embraced the technologies of the times.
In my student days, I made a point of familiarizing myself with the legacy of Hawaiian hymnals. As a graduate student living on the east coast, I had the privilege of being able to visit libraries in Boston, Providence, New York, and Washington DC, and took the opportunity to index the hymnals. In 1996, I published a scholarly article “Beyond Bibliography: Interpreting Hawaiian-Language Protestant Hymn Imprints” in the academic journal Ethnomusicology. This article presented a birdʻs-eye view of the Protestant hymn repertoire as it grows then changes.
Recent developments in online access to archival resources have led me to return to the checklist of hymnals, because I discovered that quite a few of the hymnals had been scanned and are now accessible for free online. So Iʻve taken the “Checklist of Hawaiian-Language Protestant Hymnals,” and added links to those volumes that can be viewed online. You can check out the Checklist in the “Links for Explorers” section of this site.
© 2011 Amy Ku‘uleialoha Stillman. All Rights Reserved