Singing at home


Tonight I found myself paying attention to some of the delightful dissonances in Sacred Harp music. For example, we sang “Save, Mighty Lord” (70b), and my ear was caught by the chord at the first cadence in the chorus: F in the bass, A flat in the tenor, and E flat in the treble (there is no alto voice in this song). That’s a perfect fifth over a minor third, which makes a certain kind of harmonic sense, but it results in a seventh between the bass and treble voices (I find this interval particularly noticeable between the bass voices and the male trebles). Then the basses remain on the F, while the tenors move up to C, and the trebles move up to F: that’s an octave and a fifth from the bass, and those perfect intervals seem to make the preceding chord stand out even more. During the second verse, I found myself not singing and just listening to the wild sound.

This made me want to lead “The Prodigal Son” (113), which if sung as written has several tritones in the chorus, where the bass voices sing a G sharp, and the tenors and trebles each sing a D above it (again, this is a three-voice song). For reference, each of the italicized syllables falls on a tritone: “…And starve in a for-eign land, / My fa-ther’s house hath large supplies, And bounteous are his hands.” In the past, I’ve noticed that I and some other basses tend to flat that G sharp to a G natural, but tonight the basses pretty consistently sang the G sharp, and the resulting tritone sounded surprisingly good, especially when the first one of the series is followed almost immediately by a melismatic passage of parallel fourths (on the word “land”).

These dissonances are — for me, anyway — what give Sacred Harp music its characteristic wild, almost rough, sound.