Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Shape note singing and the liturgy

I recently conducted an experiment in my work as music director at First Congregational Church of Melrose, Massachusetts, by augmenting my choir with singers from the shape-note singing communities of the Boston area, particularly Norumbega Harmony. As I have mentioned in previous posts, in recent years some musicians in liturgically oriented churches have expressed an interest in shape-note singing. This interest goes hand in hand with a trend toward eclecticism and diversity in church music, and a trend away from a single Eurocentric canon of music. Both as an ethnomusicologist and as a Christian, I have embraced these trends.

(I also believe that these tendencies are related to the growth of so-called "contemporary Christian" music in the liturgy, but that is for another post.)

Bringing together a church choir and shape-note singers presents challenges. There are differences in technique and culture that require translation so that each group of singers understands what the other is doing. Here's an outline of the problems that have to be solved:

  • How do you choose material that singers from both groups can share?
  • Do you sing the shapes? If so, how do you teach singers in the church choir to do it?
  • Do you use piano or organ to accompany, or try to go without instruments as in a singing convention?
  • Are pieces led and pitched by the choir director, or by rotating individuals from the ensemble?

Finding common ground in repertory is easier than it used to be. Since at least the publication of The Hymnal 1982 by the Episcopal Church, denominational hymnals have added many items also found in shape-note books. For our service, we used these three hymn tunes, which are in both The New Century Hymnal and The Sacred Harp:

  • Coronation
  • Martyrdom (in NCH) / Sacred Throne (in SH)
  • The Promised Land
The perennial problem is that hymnals frequently disagree in music and words. The tune "Martyrdom" sets the hymn "Alas, and did my savior bleed" in the NCH. In The Sacred Harp, this hymn is to a different tune; the tune "Martyrdom" is called "Sacred Throne", and sets "Beneath the sacred throne of God." Either is usable, but some rescoring and copying is needed in any case.

"The Promised Land" has a more drastic problem: it is in a minor key in shape-note books, but in a major key (and with dumbed-down harmony parts) in most denominational hymnals. I solved this problem by creating a hybrid arrangement for the shape-note singers: in a major key, but otherwise as close as possible to what is found in The Sacred Harp. That way the church choir and congregation can sing the tune as they know it, and the shape-note singers can sing in parts without too much difficulty.

Shape-note books can also provide material for introits, anthems, and prayer responses. Since the congregation does not sing these items, they need not appear in the denominational hymnal. We used the following pieces for this purpose:
  • Organ prelude: "Dove of Peace," arranged by John Barr in The Organist's Companion, July 2012
  • Introit: "Devotion"
  • Response after Lord's Prayer: "Ragan" 
  • Anthem: my own composition, "All Good Gifts" (currently unpublished, but may appear in print in the future)
  • Offertory: "Sherburne"
  • Benediction: "Parting Hand" 
As for the shapes, I wrote the shape names into copies of "Devotion" and "All Good Gifts" so that my choir could sing the shape names. They still found it difficult; indeed, it takes years of practice to sing the shape names fluently. It's worth the effort!

Did I use the piano or organ? My original ambition had been to use the organ only to summon the congregation at the beginning with an organ prelude. (A strange ambition for an organist!) I wanted to introduce each hymn to the congregation by having the visiting singers sing the tune in shapes first, then have the congregation join in on the first verse. During rehearsal it became clear that this would have been risky, and I decided to dispense with the shapes and to use the organ to introduce and accompany the hymns as on a usual Sunday. Maybe next time. 

(Though I will also point out that into the early 20th century, there are accounts of Southern singing conventions that had someone accompanying on piano. Some of the 78 RPM recordings of shape-note singers made in the 1920s also feature a piano, though this may have been at the request of the record producer rather than the singers.)

How did we incorporate the performance rituals of the singing convention? Obviously, our church service was different from a convention; it had a program set in advance by one leader (me) and was rehearsed in advance (one hour before the service). But I did try to incorporate some aspects of a convention:
  • I allowed shape-note singers to set the pitch for some items sung without instrumental accompaniment.
  • For the benediction, we used the traditional closing song, "Parting Hand," and invited the congregation to shake hands with each other. Most of them did!
  • Instead of an organ postlude, I invited the visiting shape-note singers to have a "mini-convention" by selecting several songs and leading them themselves.
The response from the congregation to this experiment was positive, and I plan to make this a regular feature of the liturgical calendar.