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.