2015 All-Cal trivia photo

The day after the All-Cal. The creeping crud has turned into bronchitis, and I can’t sing. All those Sacred Harp tunes going through my head from the last two days? — I’m reduced to playing them on the guitar. Blah.

So I’m amusing myself with trivia. In the photo below from day one of the 2015 All-California Sacred Harp Convention, which singer has been singing shape note music since the 1960s?

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Time Like the Tide

The Pulitzer Prize winning composer Caroline Shaw based a recent choral composition on a text familiar the Sacred harp singers, the poetry of 266 Kingwood. That composition got me interested in the poetry, so I did some research on its origin. The earliest instance I could find of this text was published in 1796, in a somewhat different form, in The Poetical Monitor, a hymnal published to support an orphanage in London; there the poem is attributed to someone named “Green.” In 1798 the text was published by Thomas Humphrys in his A Collection of Hymns, in a form much closer to the poetry of Kingwood. I chose to set the 1798 version.

I presented this tune to today’s Palo Alto local singing. It proved to be more challenging than I had wanted it to be. The time changes in particular were challenging — I led them where a quarter note in 4/4 time equaled a quarter note in 6/4 time; I think the singers expected one measure of 4/4 time to equal one measure of 6/4 time. I should have changed the 4/4 time signature to 2/2 throughout. And there were some passages that need to be revisited, and probably revised. Nevertheless, it was a fun tune to sing — and here’s the draft version:

Time Like the Tide. 8.8.6.D. (PDF)

2015 Ziegler Memorial photos

Two photos from the 2015 Dominic Ciavonne Ziegler Memorial Singing on New Year’s Day, 2015.

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Above: The old Felta Schoolhouse in Healdsburg, Calif. The setting of the Felta Schoolhouse reminds me a little of the setting of some of the traditional Southern singings, like Big Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. One of the best singing rooms in northern California.

 

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Above: Marianne leading during the singing.

 

After the singing, a dozen of us went to Phil and Larry’s new house in Sebastopol for a little more singing. Their new house has an excellent singing room — you could hear every other voice clearly and distinctly. We sang ten or a dozen tunes before we gave out, but it was some of the best singing of the day. Mind you, nothing can replace the big sound of an all-day singing. But, as Susan pointed out, it can be very nice to sing when every singer is really listening to every other singer. We need both kinds of singings.

Billings in another context

I’ve been singing with the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) chorus — not impressive at it sounds; it’s a non-auditioned community chorus — and this fall I talked the director into having us sing some works by William Billings. It wasn’t hard to talk him into programming Billings, for a number of reasons: several of Billings’ works are staples of the college chorus repertoire; you can get free scores on the Choral Public Domain Library and other Web sites; and there are plenty of excellent performances on Youtube that choristers can watch to help them learn the pieces.

Only one of the works the director programmed is in The Sacred Harp: no. 254, Rose of Sharon. It has been fascinating to sing this familiar tune in a completely different context.

First of all, the Rose of Sharon that we have in The Sacred Harp is not quite the piece of music that William Billings published in The Singing Master’s Assistant in 1778. A few of the notes are different, e.g., in the bass part, the second note (“of”) in m. 70 may be sung as E below middle C, or the E below that; in m. 6 (“I”), only the treble part has an eighth note, while the other three parts have quarter notes; etc. A slightly more significant difference is in the repeat section: we repeat mm. 98-110; but Billings originally intended the repeat section to extend from m. 98 to the last measure. These are minor differences, however, that don’t change the character of the tune very much.

Differences in tempo, however, are significantly different. According to The Complete Works of William Billings, Billings intended the following tempi: in the 2/4 sections, a quarter note equals 120 beats per minute; that’s not much different from the tempo we would use in the Sacred Harp tradition. But in the 6/4 sections, Billings would generally give a dotted half note about the same value as a half note in a 2/4 section, i.e., a dotted half note is about 60 b.p.m.; this is noticeably slower than Sacred Harp practice. And in the 6/8 sections, Billings wants a dotted quarter note to equal 80 b.p.m., while in the Sacred Harp tradition we would tend to make a dotted quarter note close to 120 b.p.m.

Interestingly, performance practices between the CCSF chorus and Sacred Harp singers are not as noticeable as you might think. The CCSF chorus does sing the tune at written pitch, but we would not pitch it much lower here in the Bay Area. The CCSF chorus director is aware of early American choral practices, and encourages a full-throated, open sound, without any vibrato; he asks us to rehearse without a piano so we don’t get sucked into equal temperament tuning; and he does not have us slow down at the end of the piece. Oh, and since it’s a community chorus, the voices are a mix of pretty ordinary and really good, just as in Sacred Harp singings.

The big difference, from my point of view as a singer, is that in the CCSF chorus we get to work on Rose of Sharon for extended periods of time. The plain tunes and simple fuguing tunes in The Sacred Harp are pretty straightforward so there’s not much need to practice them, and besides when you sing multiple verses it’s like practicing the same piece of music three or four times. But an anthem like Rose of Sharon is a more complex piece of music, well worth spending time on going over tricky bits to get them just right, paying attention to timing and entrances and intonation, etc.

In fact, I suspect that that is just what singers did in the singing school tradition out of which the Sacred Harp tradition came: they worked on the more difficult tunes until they got them right. And in reality, many of us today do exactly the same thing — except that we watch Youtube videos or listen to audio recordings of Sacred Harp tunes, instead of working through the more challenging anthems with other live singers. Maybe it’s one thing if you grow up in a traditional singing family, where your parents make you learn how to sing and work you through the tricky bits of the more challenging tunes; I guess the rest of us will have to make do with Youtube.

Singing at St. Mary the Virgin

Carolyn organized a fifth Sunday singing in San Francisco, at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Since I had no duties at my congregation I was able to attend. The church is beautiful, and beautifully maintained — a late nineteenth century wood-frame structure. The ceilings were a little higher than Sacred Harp singers prefer, but nevertheless I thought the sound was quite nice. Indeed, the only problem with the sound was that out of about 25 singers, there were only half a dozen men — but that has nothing to do with the building.

What was particularly nice about this singing was that perhaps a dozen members of the church joined us, mostly members of their choir. They were all good singers, and seemed to pick up Sacred Harp singing quickly. As it turns out, their music director, Chip, has had them sing from The Southern Harmony, and some of them had even accompanied Chip to the Big Singing in Benton, Kentucky. So they knew what shape-note singing should sound like!

After the break, Chip, the music director, led us in a couple of tunes by William Walker from the Southern Harmony. He told the altos that at the Big Singing, altos were not supposed to sing with the basses, and usually sang with the trebles. I love William Walker, and it was both interesting and fun to sing several of his tunes in his original arrangements — makes me want to go to the Big Singing myself some day.