The Shapenote Album. – Review

The Shapenote Album. – Review – sound recording review

Nym Cooke

The Shapenote Album. Music by Justin Morgan, Daniel Read, William Walker, Timothy Swan, Alfred Marcus Cagle, Oren Adolphes Parris, John Gordon McCurry and Power, Edmund Dumas, John P. Reese, Stephen Jenks, C. Dingley, William Billings, Seaborn McDaniel Denson and Joseph Stephen James Sr., Leonard P. Breedlove (arr.), Jeremiah Ingalls, Lucius Chapin, Paine Denson, and Nehemiah Shumway. The Tudor Choir; Doug Fullington, director. Liner notes by Karen E. Willard. 1996. Pelican Records PR-TSNA.

Each of these three discs finds itself in excellent company. All are musically substantive, beautifully sung, engineered with care, and accompanied by useful or stimulating notes. Their existence testifies to a new level of attention being paid by gifted musicians to Anglo-American folk-art religious song. With a flock of substantial early American choral music editions recently brought out (reviewed in American Music 16, no. 3 [Fall 1998]), perhaps this attention will continue or even increase.

The influence of shape-note or Sacred Harp singing can be found in each of these recordings. Americans have used shaped note-heads in order to sing music at sight for 200 years; accompanying this technique has been, at least in the rural South, a loud, rapid-paced, uninflected, vibratoless, frequently nasal singing style. In recent decades this tradition has been enthusiastically adopted by many outside the South, particularly on or around college campuses. One of the earliest among the new wave of devotees was Vermont’s Larry Gordon, who has led shape-note singing groups since the early 1970s. Gordon’s long involvement with this music and his commitment to recreating the life of a rural singing master in late twentieth-century Vermont bear sometimes remarkable fruit on the disc Endless Light. His influence is strongly felt, as well, on The Shapenote Album, which borrows much of its repertory and some of its singing style from the fine 1979 recording, Rivers of Delight, by Gordon’s Word of Mouth Chorus. Finally, many singers in the Chicago-based chorus His Majestie’s Clerkes, including their artistic director Anne Heider, are also interested in shape-note singing; Heider in fact has studied the resurgence of this practice in the Midwest.

On these recordings, all three choruses sing music drawn from or influenced by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century rural American traditions of musical composition and performance. These traditions developed in environments whose world views, aesthetics, and opportunities for the development of musical craft were vastly different from those of late twentieth-century America. Each chorus has had to work out its relationship to the early American (and British) musical cultures represented by the music it sings here–to balance, for example, faithfulness to its own identity as a chorus with faithfulness to the shape-note performing tradition. And each chorus, unsurprisingly, has come up with a different solution, a different balance. His Majestie’s Clerkes, under the inspired leadership of Paul Hillier, make no attempt whatsoever to achieve what might be their notion of “authentic” performance practice, whether for sixteenth-century English tunes or for early nineteenth-century New England ones. They sing these pieces with the thoughtfulness, care, and precision they would bring to any repertory, in performances that seem to be saying, in effect, “This is the most we can bring out of this music.” The Tudor Choir attempts faithfulness both to its own identify as a chorus of trained singers specializing in Tudor and other Renaissance music, and to the shape-note tradition, with mixed results. Its performances declare, “This is the way they (rural folks in the South) sing this music–augmented by some of the strengths (especially precision of intonation, enunciation, and rhythm) we have to offer.” The marriage feels uneasy. Finally, the young people comprising Larry Gordon’s Village Harmony chorus sing their own compositions passionately and straightforwardly, in performances that say, simply, “This is our music.” They have absorbed what they need of the shape-note singing style and compositional idiom, and have then come up with their own.

The twenty-three selections on Goostly Psalmes (“goostly” = “ghostly,” spirit-filled; the title is borrowed from an English collection of the early 1500s) range from sixteenth-century hymn settings by William Parsons and John Farmer to early nineteenth-century fuging tunes by Nehemiah Shumway and Stephen Jenks, with a generous serving of William Billings (who was already amply represented on the chorus’s all-Billings disc, A Land of Pure Delight) in between. In all, we hear the music of seventeen composers–seven English and ten American. It is a rich banquet, whose inclusion of sacred music ranging from Elizabethan England to Federalist America makes a strong case for stylistic continuity in this genre over several centuries. A striking example of this continuity is found in “The Humble Complaint of a Sinner” by John Dowland and “Brevity” by Abraham Wood, tunes juxtaposed on the recording. Dowland’s surprising cadential harmonies on “[trans-]gress” (stanza 1) / “trust” (stanza 2) are nicely echoed by the harmonies for “seen to [rise]” and “[eve-]ning” in the Wood piece–composed several thousand miles away and 200 years later. The American pieces, so carefully shaped and beautifully presented in their performances here, will doubtless reach some European ears with the force of revelation, for the natural grace and strength of this instinctually composed music is as yet unsuspected by many. Some of the English pieces heard here, such as Parsons’s gorgeous “Lamentation of a Sinner,” have struck this American reviewer with like force.

Several performances on this disc have a deeply meditative quality. Listening to Hillier’s versions of Wood’s “Brevity” or Amariah Hall’s “All Saints,” it is as if we are hearing the composer, having just finished writing a tune, musing over its harmonies at the keyboard, playing them slowly and reflectively to test them with his ear (an unlikely scenario in terms of historical fact, as most of these composers neither owned nor had easy access to keyboard instruments). One is able to exchange the loss of “All Saints”‘ tremendous composed-in energy for the pleasure of hearing its sometimes odd, linearly derived harmonies revealed so clearly in this chorus’s precise, caressing performance–an interpretation that actually does ample justice to the text, which is about yearning and surrender. And the Clerkes’ marvelously delicate and perfectly timed downward arc of dynamics on the first iteration of “Brevity”‘s “He withers, falls, and dies” is heartbreaking. One wonders how Messrs. Wood and Hall would have reacted to such accomplished, ravishingly beautiful readings of their simple, short tunes.

This reviewer’s gripes are all minor. Occasionally the expressive essence of a piece seems missing. Daniel Read’s plain tune “Windham” could be slower and bigger; Stephen Jenks’s fuging tune “Decay” (with its thrusting short-short-long rhythm on “one sharp blast” leading to the strongly accented “sweeps”) could be quicker, more pointed, more forceful. The chorus’s delivery of text, altered somewhat from normal speech in the interests of maximum clarity and cleanness, sometimes fails adequately to conceal the tricks of the trade: “Thy goodness crowns the yee” [= year] over and over again at the end of Timothy Swan’s “Rainbow” is one example. Very rarely, pitches are questionable: do those basses think they’re in E minor or E major at the start of “Greenwich”‘s fuging section? And with so many highly qualified New England contemporaries of William Billings, and a full disc of Billings’s music by this chorus already available, is it necessary to have more Billings here? The performances of his works are splendid (the varied scoring for the different stanzas of “Chester” and “Chesterfield” is very effective, though surely not representative of performance practice in Billings’s day), but one wonders at the reasons for including the rhythmically square, cadentially predictable “Thomas-Town,” or the tonally static anthem “Who is this that cometh from Edom?” We have heard the worthwhile essences of these unexceptional pieces elsewhere, under other titles.

Anne Heider’s notes for Goostly Psalmes are compact, informative, well written, and only rarely misleading (there is no evidence that American singing masters were “often the local schoolteacher or parish clerk”; Billings was by no means the most prolific composer of his generation). Full texts are provided for all the selections.

The Shapenote Album, sung by the Tudor Choir of Seattle, is in some respects a remake of Rivers of Delight, a 1979 LP by Vermont’s Word of Mouth Chorus (reissued on CD: Elektra/Nonesuch 9 71360-2). Eleven of The Shapenote Album’s twenty-five pieces appear on the earlier recording, and the overall balance between eighteenth-century New England and nineteenth-century Southern repertory is the same. Tempi, expression, pitching, scoring, and rhythmic details are borrowed: for examples, William Walker’s “Sweet Prospect” is sung by women only on both discs; Read’s “Windham,” originally in F minor and printed in E minor in The Sacred Harp, is sung in G-sharp minor on both recordings, resulting in a thrilling upwards reach to G sharp for the tenors at the end of the third phrase; and, also in “Windham” and on both albums, tenor/alto and bass/treble reentries for phrases 2, 3, and 4 are staggered by one quarter note (not written thus by Read). Further, the choruses are identical in size–nineteen singers–and both build tenor-treble doubling into their vocal lineup, with two women singing tenor and two men singing treble.

The Shapenote Album draws most of its music–twenty-one tunes–from the two most famous shape-note tunebooks, The Sacred Harp and Walker’s The Southern Harmony. It begins with shouted-out solmization syllables: a strong proclamation of the tradition represented here. (The customary practice of singing through a tune first with fa, sol, la, and mi, and then with the words, is followed one-third of the time, exactly as on Rivers of Delight: a judicious sprinkling of a practice that would become tiresome were it invariably present.) At least one of the chorus’s altos has that unmistakable Southern bray. The singers’ pronunciation is determinedly folk-Amurrican; thus one hears, “And if to eighdy we arrive,” “Lo, whadda glorrious side [sight] appearrs,” “And makes his own destruction sherr [sure],” and “Eterrnal arre thy merrcies, Lorrd.” A conscious attempt to folkify the sound seems to be being made here, as also in the female tenor’s repeated upward flips to that part’s highest notes in Edmund Dumas’s “White.” It is all a bit overdone, and occasionally irritating.

Once in a while the Tudor Choir betrays its cultivated background, as in the overexpressive solo tenor on “Heavenly Union” or in the chorus’s too-careful, too-crisply-delineated readings of pieces (such as “All Is Weft”) that should be rollicking rousers. For the most part, however, the Choir turns in a quite creditable imitation of a Northern shape-note singing group. That said, one finds oneself wondering about the particular need or niche, if any, that this album fills. If one is interested in the true shape-note sound, why not go straight to the source and pick up a recording of a Sacred Harp singing convention? If one hungers for the powerful late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century songs sung so compellingly on Rivers of Delight, why not listen to that disc? If one likes early American sacred choral music sung with rhythmic precision, beautiful intonation, and seductive vocal blend, why not stick with His Majestie’s Clerkes?

Why not, indeed? Nevertheless, The Shapenote Album offers rewards of its own. In fact, each question posed above can be partly countered with an argument for adding the present album to one’s collection of early American sacred choral music on disc. To begin with, there are more singing styles than “shape-note” here. On occasion, arrangements and vocal delivery nicely point up the varying geographical/temporal origins and musical character of different tunes: the strong lady tenors on Timothy Swan’s “China” (doubling the melody in The Southern Harmony’s three-voice version) give the piece a cool, almost decorous sound, while the strident altos on John Reese’s “Eternal Day” contribute to a hot, wilder sound for that tune. And over a span of almost five minutes, the chorus’s men sing all five stanzas of the John Leland hymn that Stephen Jenks set to music in “Evening Shade”–leisurely, repeating Jenks’s fuge each time around–to create a peaceful and meditative dark pool of sound at the album’s exact center. (The two preceding and three following tracks are also quiet–dominated either by men’s voices or by soloists–providing a welcome if perhaps over-long break from the lively material that starts and ends the disc.)

Comparing the Tudor Choir’s and the Word of Mouth Chorus’s performances of the tunes their albums share brings in a mixed verdict. The larger number of (trained, full-voiced) singers on the Tudor Choir’s version of Oren Parris’s “The Better Land” means that this tune’s rapid-fire eighth notes are occasionally somewhat jumbled, and one turns with relief to the Word of Mouth’s lean, folky solo-quartet version, with its vibratoless singing and light, crisp eighths. But the revivalist spiritual folksong “Weeping Mary” is thrilling when the Tudor Choir’s big guns weigh in, as is Jeremiah Ingalls’s “New Jerusalem,” whose symphonic sustained notes (in the fuging section) have never sounded grander. Lastly, the argument to add this disc to a collection already containing His Majestie’s Clerkes’ two recordings of early Americana is simple: the Tudor Choir’s album covers a substantially later repertory.

The twenty-four-page booklet accompanying the recording includes full texts for all the pieces, and lively, extensive notes by Karen Willard. Ms. Willard has marshalled a lot of information here, and her knowledge of the Southern shape-note repertory is impressive. However, one discerns, though in far lesser degree, the same “folk scholarship”–an overreliance on anecdotal material, and a reluctance to track everything down in primary sources–that marks the Sacred Harp tunebook itself. Several examples: Timothy Swan’s New England Harmony (Northampton, Mass., 1801) is not “one of the very earliest shapenote tunebooks” (all its notes are as round as any in the Bach-Gesellschaft), Swan himself is not known to have taught singing schools, and his “China” is a hymn tune, not a psalm tune (p. 7); only the first stanza of Isaac Watts’s text set by Daniel Read in “Mortality” lends itself to the 12-4-4-4-8-syllable subdivision noted by Willard, while Read’s music solidly supports the conventional 4 X 8-syllable structure that most of the other stanzas adhere to (p. 10); William Billings’s influence and popularity increased, then sharply decreased between 1770 and 1800, at least in the Northeast which is where his music was known at the time (p. 17); and that slur in the alto part of Jeremiah Ingalls’s “New Jerusalem” didn’t disappear in the 1850 edition of The Sacred Harp–it was simply moved over to the right by two measures (p. 19)! The reviewer has commented only on Ms. Willard’s notes relating to New England psalmody, his area of particular expertise.

Perhaps partly because it feels a bit lost in a cultural limbo somewhere between the cultivated and the vernacular, The Shapenote Album wears rather less well than the other two compact discs under review. One finds oneself marking time with these performances rather than being moved by them. When one comes to yet another tune sung five or six times through to five or six stanzas of text–sounding pretty much the same from stanza to stanza-one starts to wonder, Who would ever listen to this music? Nevertheless, the Tudor Choir clearly enjoys singing it; and if they manage to steer clear of tasteless excursions such as the “Pine Tree Brethren” fiction created around a group of shape-note tunes by Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion in June 1997–with the Choir providing fa-sol-la musical illustrations (which in that context could not help but come across as more comic than communicative) and with a ridiculous drum solo in the middle of “Happy Land”–then it is to be hoped they will keep it in their repertory. (Ah, the dangerous lure of national exposure!)

Endless Light describes itself this way: “hearty–rhythmic–intense–delicate–earthy–mystical–contrapuntal hymns, psalms, spiritual songs (and a waltz), by nine teenage composers from Village Harmony, sung and played by fifty past and present members of this extraordinary Vermont youth ensemble.” Larry Gordon founded Village Harmony in 1989, and the Village Harmony Summer Camp the next year, in order to give people aged about eleven to twenty-one a chance to perform the music of a variety of traditions in a supportive communal environment. They sing contemporary compositions, Balkan music, European polyphony of the Renaissance and early Baroque, South African songs, American gospel hymns, and African-American spirituals, but the heart of their repertory has been the singing-school music of eighteenth-century New England, and shape-note tunes from the nineteenth- and twentieth-century South. When the kids in the group started to write their own songs–and this started almost immediately, with seventeen-year-old Seth Houston in 1991–this bony, angular early American music was a major influence, and the texts of English nonconformist minister Isaac Watts, favored by the New England composers of Billings’s generation, remained a central source of inspiration (almost half of the vocal pieces on this disc set texts by Watts). In the liner notes for Endless Light, Gordon writes:

“Many people who lead music with teenagers feel that in order to grab their

interest one must choose mostly secular popular music. My experience is the

opposite. The teenagers that I work with are serious and deeply passionate

and they are searching for music and musical experience which is

transcendent…. [W]e find ourselves most drawn to sacred music…. I think

that is because it is primarily sacred music which carries enough depth and

emotional weight to engender the kind of communion that I seek in singing.”

The sense of communion on Endless Light–as at Village Harmony’s thrilling concerts, where the kids sing without music in constant, fluid, dance-like motion–is powerful. The disc was made by fifty-six singers who gathered in Stowe, Vermont, for five days of rehearsal and recording late in 1996. Twenty-three pieces by Village Harmony members, including ten by the fertile Seth Houston, ended up on the CD; Gordon writes that “quite a few [of the songs and arrangements] were worked out during the course of those intensive sessions.” Eighteen instrumentalists–most of them drawn from the singers–played thirteen different instruments to provide a variety of charming “gallery orchestra” accompaniments for some of the tunes. The performances are strong, the excitement is palpable, the scorings of the pieces (some with instrumental doublings or introductions, others a cappella; some for female voices alone, others for males; two for instruments only) are nicely varied, pitch generally remains constant throughout a piece (Houston’s “Interstate” declines by about a semitone, but that is the exception), the sound of teenage girls’ voices in a cappella harmony is thrilling, and some of the compositions are knockouts.

Clearly, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Village Harmony phenomenon is the outpouring of original music it has produced. The surprisingly rich creative climate surrounding the early American singing school–where musical models, adequate training, materials (pen, ink, and paper; at a later stage, groups of singers), texts, and opportunities for performance (singing exhibitions and Sabbath services) were all available to the fledgling composer–made it possible for farm lads, tanners with only a limited common-school education, hatter’s apprentices, and coopers to attend singing school for three months and come out writing their first four-voice psalm or hymn settings. This climate changed drastically with the steadily increasing flow of trained European musicians, European musical masterworks, and cultivated European musical values into New England in the years 1790-1810. American singing-school composers were afflicted with a paralyzing awareness of their technical shortcomings, and a huge fount of indigenous musical creativity dried up in this country. Now, two centuries later, Larry Gordon has recreated the creative climate of the early New England singing school and dropped teenagers into it, and we are beginning to witness the results. Like their eighteenth-century precursors, most or all of the nine composers represented on Endless Light were in their teens when they started to write music–though, unlike the Billings generation, this new crop of psalmodists and hymnodists is largely female (six of the nine are girls). Seth Houston, Anna Patton, and Moira Smiley were all aged sixteen to twenty when they wrote the disc’s most successful and memorable tunes–Houston’s “Big Sky” and “Lawrence” and “Interstate,” Patton’s “Resolution,” and Smiley’s “Lewis.” This is no more wondrous than William Billings composing his remarkable anthem on the text “As the hart panteth after the water-brooks” in his late teens or early twenties, but it is certainly noteworthy.

What Houston, Patton, and Smiley do not share with Billings, of course, is the dazzling richness of present-day American musical culture. Their way of composing may be similar–writing one line at a time, then combining the lines in partly accidental “folk polyphony”–but the range of melodic and expressive gestures available to composers in the late twentieth century is, obviously, vastly greater than that available in the late eighteenth. The result, clearly displayed on Endless Light, is not only melodic but harmonic variety: Anna Patton’s “When the Hours of Day Are Numbered” is like a diatonic version of late Stravinsky with its melodic angularity and its balance of triadic and nontriadic sonorities, while Houston’s “Lawrence” (for this writer the most haunting tune on the disc), scored for three-part women’s chorus, is reminiscent of a part-song by Johannes Brahms. What kinds of music did these kids encounter when they were growing up? Northern Harmony, a tunebook coedited by Gordon and issued by his Northern Harmony Publishing Company (4th ed., 1998), contains biographical sketches of the composers represented therein, including seven born in the past quarter-century, but these sketches are not informative about musical backgrounds, beyond general remarks such as “comes from a very musical family” (Patton) or “studied music from an early age” (Smiley). No matter what their particular influences, these young composers, like so many creating music in the 1990s, display a marvelous flexibility and freedom of musical style.

The quality of the music here is uneven: the two purely instrumental selections feel like padding, several songs repeatedly passed by without registering on the consciousness of this listener, and Seth Houston’s music can be a bit self-indulgent (“Smear”‘s first and fourth stanzas start powerfully, but its third stanza and the second half of the fourth feel clogged and excessive; “Big Bay” is more conventionally pop-y, with more predictable syncopations, than the splendid “Big Sky,” which certainly has no need of the accompanying percussion added later to “Big Bay”). The reviewer’s only other reservation has to do with the lack of song texts in the accompanying insert. No matter how precise and clear a chorus’s enunciation, all recordings of this sort of music benefit from the inclusion of full texts, as a focusing aid for the listener if nothing else; Endless Light, as a package, suffers from their omission.

But these objections pale before the overall accomplishment of this remarkable recording. Endless Light is equally exciting as renaissance and naissance: the polyphonic, sacred-texted composing tradition of the singing school returns to New England after two centuries’ absence, and at the same time a vital new creative outlet for young people is set in motion as one millennium gives way to another. Larry Gordon’s role in making this all happen cannot, one suspects, be overestimated. He is to be thanked, and further developments are eagerly awaited.

Nym Cooke College of the Holy Cross

COPYRIGHT 1999 University of Illinois Press

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group