Singing at home

Trumpet singing, vol. 2, no. 2

We gathered in Carolyn’s living room to sing through the latest issue of The Trumpet. We had a good turnout: 3 trebles, 3 altos, 3 basses,
and half a dozen tenors. And there were enough good sight singers to give every tune a pretty good reading (though we basses needed help once or twice; thank you, Marsha!).

We pretty much all agreed that this was the best issue of The Trumpet yet. The average quality of the tunes was quite high, and a few tunes were very pleasant to sing. I’ll mention just a few of the tunes the I found most fun to sing.

Plain tunes first: I enjoyed singing Laurelton again, a long meter plain tune by Deidra Montgomery (I had sung it once before at the pacific Northwest Convention this past February, led by the composer). It’s a good well-crafted tune that sounds like a contemporary version of a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century tune. Joshua, an plain tune credited to Glenn Keeton and Chris Ballinger, is a very singable tune in the style of the mid-nineteenth century Southern tunesmiths. Gerry Hoffman’s Allegheny is a fun short meter tune with a lovely poem by Philip Doddridge. I’m a sucker for Doddridge, and I liked the interplay between folk-like melody in the tenor, and the bass part.

On to fuguing tunes: Runyan, by Micah Sommer, was a real standout long meter fuguing tune. Each part had some challenging places that were great fun to sing. For example, between measures 11 and 12, the bass section jumps up a major sixth to middle C (the highest note for the basses in the tune); that leap up a sixth is a bit unexpected, and when we didn’t hit it, it sounded terrible and we threw the other parts off; but when we did hit it, we made a lovely major triad with the other parts, which was worth the effort. After the singing, i was talking about this piece with Marsha, who felt it was one of the best tunes in this issue of The Trumpet; but we couldn’t decide whether this tune would sound good to an audience; i.e., was it more singers’ music, or would it also succeed as listener’s music?

Finally, I want to mention the anthem Now I Was Free by Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg. It was a very enjoyable tune to sing; we had enough time at the end of the evening to sing a couple of tunes over again, and the class chose Runyan and Now I Was Free. In the second singing, while I enjoyed the music, I found I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the matching of text to music: when I hear Harriet Tubman’s words I hear joy but I also hear a sharp commentary on a society that could keep people in slavery;* for me, the music in Now I Was Free has more triumph than I hear in Tubman’s words. But to be critical in this way is to pay the tune a high compliment: it is clearly communicating emotion, and the composer has clearly thought about what he’s trying to get across. I may not fully agree with that emotion and thought, but the fact remains that it is a well-constructed tune that communicates something clearly and definitely. We need more composers writing tunes we can talk about this seriously.


* The Tubman quote comes from Sarah H. Bradford’s 1886 book Harriet, the Moses of Her People. The material Bradford puts in before and after the quote seems to support my reading of Tubman’s words:

All these visions proved deceitful: she was more alone than ever; but she had crossed the line; no one could take her now, and she would never call any man “Master” more.

“I looked at my hands,” she said, “to see if I was de same person now I was free. Dere was such a glory ober eberything, de sun came like gold trou de trees, and ober de fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.” But then came the bitter drop in the cup of joy. She was alone, and her kindred were in slavery, and not one of them had the courage to dare what she had dared. Unless she made the effort to liberate them she would never see them more, or even know their fate.

Of course Bradford makes her own interpretation of Tubman’s words in her book (e.g., Bradford puts Tubman’s words into the stylized literary Negro dialect of the late nineteenth century); just as I have my own liberation theology interpretation of Tubman’s words; and Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg’s composition is yet another perfectly valid interpretation of Tubman’s words.

Due to demands of my job, this was posted a week and a half late.