Singing at home

“Madrid” by Billings

Recently, I’ve been reading a bit in William Billings’s The Suffolk Harmony. I got interested in The Suffolk Harmony because Billings uses quite a few texts by the eighteenth century theologian James Relly — Relly is not an obvious choice because he held to the doctrine of universal salvation, something that was not aligned with the typical theological stance of the people who were writing and singing music for and in the late eighteenth century singing schools.

Theology aside, I’m finding that some of the tunes are really quite enjoyable. Tonight during our monthly Other Book singing in Berkeley, I presented my transcription of “Madrid” by Billings. The singers seemed to like it pretty well. It was relatively easy to sightread, and it was great fun to sing — at least it was great fun for me to sing the bass part, although the other parts seemed to enjoy singing the tune as well.

Madrid, by William Billings.

N.B.: I did careful proofreading, and while I believe there are no typographical errors, I would appreciate hearing from you if you find an error in transcription.

New compositions Singing at home

More new compositions

Both Carl and Julian presented new compositions during the Other Book portion of tonight’s singing. Carl’s composition was “Sweet Accord,” which he had presented last month. I liked it last month, and I liked it better this month. It was also interesting to watch him lead the tune because it looked to me as though he went through some of the same things I’ve gone through when leading a new tune for the first time. We singers kept slowing down the tempo, in spite of Carl’s best efforts — the tune is in 6/8 time, but we sang it as though it were 6/4 time (and if Carl hadn’t kept pushing us to go faster, I think we could have slowed it down to 6/2 time). And our singing was a bit too tentative, we weren’t singing in our usual full-voiced way, so some of the harmonies didn’t sound the way I thought they should have done. On top of that, all evening we just weren’t singing in tune with each other.

Afterwards, I told Carl how much I liked “Sweet Accord,” and asked him what he thought of it. He said it didn’t come out sounding quite the way he heard it in his head when he was writing it. (This is something he and I have talked about before — you can write whatever you want, but the singers take it and make of it what they want.) Then I asked him what was different about the way we sang “Sweet Accord.” It was thin, he said, which I thought was a good concise description of what I had been hearing. Of course he mentioned that it was slow, and he also noticed the intonation problems. Marsha happened to overhear us talking, and she said that “Sweet Accord” deserved another hearing; we needed to sing it again, and she hoped Carl would bring it back.

Julian’s new composition, titled “Monterey,” was also quite nice. For whatever reason, I think he got a somewhat better reading of his tune than did Carl. Perhaps his tune was marginally easier to sight-sing, since it had a fair number of arpeggios and ascending or descending segments of scales. I didn’t get a chance to talk with Julian about what he thought about our rendition of his tune, but I’d be interested to know how he thinks we did with it.

I also presented a tune, and the singing did not go particularly well. The tune was, I think, a bit too experimental. I used a pentatonic scale, ostensibly a minor scale, it lacked the third and sixth degrees which made for an ambiguous tonality. That also made for some challenging harmonies. On top of that, some of the individual melodic lines were challenging, with big ranges and odd leaps. It sounded great on the piano, but it was not much fun for people to actually sing.  [Sheet music removed.]

One last point: the final judge of any Sacred Harp tune is the community of singers. We know that some day there will be another revision of the Denson book, and while I hope that revision doesn’t come any time soon, when it does come the songs that get left out will be the songs that we singers don’t sing much. And if any new songs get included, it will be those that the singers themselves choose to sing.