Stars in My Crown

Inspired by Caroline Shaw’s composition based on the words to the old gospel hymn “Stars in My Crown,” I decided to write a Sacred Harp tune using this text. My version came out unlike both Shaw’s version, and the gospel version. We sang it today in the Palo Alto bimonthly singing with a strong class, and I thought it sounded pretty good. The singers seemed to like it too.

Here’s the sheet music — alas, I didn’t have time to make it pretty, but it’s legible:


I started writing this tune on April 21, the day my father died, and finished it the day of his memorial service. I cleaned up a few errors after that, but the bulk of the composition took place in those six days.

Chaville (en francais)

In honor of the Paris Sacred Harp singers, here’s a tune I wrote based on a French text.

The text is from a French metrical psalter published in 1729, the Psautier Genève. The psalms were set in rhyming metrical poetry by Clément Marot Théodore de Bèze in 1563, and revised in 1729 by the Synode Wallon, published in 1730 in Amsterdam. The text of this psalter is available online here, or (in a form that I find more convenient) here. I note with interest that the 1730 edition, available on Google Books, includes one page introduction to the principles of singing, using solfege syllables; the syllables used were ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si.

Some of the meters in the Psautier de Geneve are fairly complicated, but I found that Ps. 150 (one of my favorite psalms) had been put into a relatively uncomplicated 7s D. meter (i.e., The tune I wrote for this metrical psalm is in the style of the First New England School.

I wanted to present the tune to the Palo Alto local singing, but when I tried to sing the French I found it very difficult singing in a foreign language; this gave me a new appreciation for the abilities of non-English speaking Sacred harp singers. Because my French accent was so bad, I decided to add a line-by-line translation in metrical (but non-rhyming) English. Here’s the version I presented to the Palo Alto singers, which we sang in English:

Chaville for English speakers

The Palo Alto singers liked the tune. I was reasonably happy with it, or at least happy enough that I figured I would neither embarrass myself, nor give California singers a bad name, if I sent to the tune to the Paris Sacred Harp singers. By the way, the tune is named for the suburb of Paris where the Paris Sacred Harp singers currently hold their local singing.

And here, for purists, is the version I sent to the French singers; if you want to experience what non-English speaking Sacred Harp singers experience, try sight-singing the tune entirely in French:

Chaville for French speakers (with metrical English translation)

Finally, for those who are interested: after I wrote the tune, and after we sang it in Palo Alto, I realized I could look up the original melody given in the 1730 Amsterdam book. I transcribed the original melody into shape notes, and here it is:

Psaume 150, original melody

The Bee

And, following on from the previous post, here is the second child-friendly tune we sang today:

The Bee. C.M.

If you actually sing either of these tunes with young children, pitch them in a range where the children feel most comfortable singing (probably around middle C to A above).

Background: The tune is one that has long been associated with this poetry. And while young children today probably won’t be familiar with the word “doth,” I decided not to alter the wording since this is such a famous poem. (Indeed, if you remember Alice in Wonderland from your childhood, you’ll recall that Alice recites a fractured version of this first verse.)

Commentary: I know, I know, it is so obvious that this song has been produced by a children and youth minister. And yes, I do indeed enjoy teaching moral precepts to children. If you do not like teaching morality to children, you hereby have permission (like you need my permission) to use the silly words from Alice in Wonderland instead.

Happy Is the Child

An email exchange with Mark, a Sacred Harp singer and the parent of two toddlers, got me to thinking about music for young children (age 5 and under).

Years ago, I took a workshop in leading songs with children, and the leader of the workshop (an experienced children’s chorus director) pointed out that young children sing best in a range from about middle C to the A above middle C; this is precisely the range of one of the all-time great children’s songs, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Not only is this the most comfortable range for young children to sing in, but they actually hear best in this range. So if you want to teach a Sacred Harp tune to a child, the ideal melody would be one that which would have a range of about a sixth, and which could be pitched from about middle C to A. This rules out most, but not all, tenor melodies in The Sacred Harp.

Another thing to remember about young children is that they don’t read (most of them, anyway). So a Sacred Harp tune with lots of words, or lots of verses, is going to add a layer of difficulty for young children. And while young children are good at memorizing, they find it easier to remember lyrics that have words and images that they understand — like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” This rules out many tunes in The Sacred Harp, which may have words that young children simply don’t yet know.

If you’re looking for a Sacred Harp tune with a tenor melody that has a range of a sixth, plus words that young children will find comprehensible, about the only tune that comes to my mind is 46 “Let Us Sing.” I’m sure there are others — but not many others.

Fortunately, Isaac Watts wrote a whole book of poetry for young children: Divine Songs for Children. Most of the tunes are aimed at older children, but there are plenty of stanzas and couplets that work well for young children. So I decided to set some of Isaac Watts’ poetry to child-friendly melodies, and then harmonize them in Sacred Harp style.

Now the number of Sacred Harp singers who have children age 2 through age 5, and who want to teach their children Sacred Harp-y tunes, and who furthermore want to have their young children sing along with other Sacred Harp singers — well, this is going to be a pretty small number of people. But I work with children, and this is the kind of thing I find fun, so I wrote two tunes, and we sang them today in the Palo Alto local singing. The singers present liked the tunes pretty well, but the two-year-old and the four-year-old who were there did not join in singing with us.

Here’s the first tune:

Happy Is the Child. 8s.

Oh, and this tune? It’s adapted from “Jimmy Rose He Went to Town,” in the book American Folk Songs for Children by Ruth Crawford Seeger. My copy of this book is a well-worn, much used copy owned by my mother, a schoolteacher who taught kindergarten for over a decade, and preschool (ages 3 and 4) for nearly a decade.

On to the next tune.

The post-singing singing

We had eight people show up today for three hours of singing, including two out-of-town singers. We sang some old favorites that weren’t led at the all-day singing (China, Stratfield, etc.). We worked through a few tunes that we did sing at the all-day singing, but where at least some of us weren’t satisfied with the way we sang them yesterday — and we worked on them till we all felt reasonably happy with the outcome. I also introduced three new tunes that I had written, and the singers very graciously worked through them and offered useful comments (I’ll post those here as separate blog posts). And we ate leftovers from the Saturday night social — yum!

All in all, a pleasant way to wind down from the all-day singing.

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)

Singing again

AFter a month away from singing due to bronchitis and laryngitis, I was finally able to sing again this week. And what better way to get back into singing than with the Palo Alto singers.

The Palo Alto local singing has been getting really good recently. Some of these folks have been singing together for years and years, which means that the singing starts off with an advantage. But mostly it just seems like the singing is going well; every singing group goes through its ups and downs, and the Palo Alto singing seems to be going up at the moment.

What I especially like about the Palo Alto singing is the excellent intonation. When we’re singing, I can often feel the overtones from the good intonation vibrating in my chest and head. Why has our intonation gotten so good? Perhaps it’s because we have been leading tunes at somewhat more moderate tempos; perhaps it’s because we’ve been singing more than just a couple of verses of each tune, which gives us times to get the intonation exactly right. Mostly, though, I think it’s because we’re relaxed and we take the time to listen to each other. Good intonation requires good listening — you can get the rhythm by watching the leader, you can get the melody by looking at the book, but the only way to be in tune is to listen to the other singers.

We had two new singers today, and I don’t know what it felt like to them, but to my ears they both sounded great right from the start. Now both of them have done lots of other kinds of singing, so they were starting from a relatively high level; but it’s also true that it’s much easier to sing if the group you’re singing with is in tune and in rhythm with each other.

Even though I was still struggling a little on the higher notes — my voice hasn’t quite recovered from the bronchitis, I guess — it felt really good to sing today. It’s amazing what eleven good singers can do inside a room with wood walls and ceiling: I got carried away by the waves of sound.