Tag Archives: William Billings

Democracy in action, through singing

This paragraph, from an essay about 18th century American church song, reminded me why I have a visceral dislike of certain kinds of music prevalent in liberal religious congregations today:

“When it was composed, this music [American 18th century four-part church song] was experienced rather than heard because it was not written for an audience’s appreciation or to tickle an ear — it was written to be experienced in performance by performers. How it ‘sounded’ to a non-participant was of very little importance. This is no novel concept; it is one of the essential pre-conditions of genuine church song. Clearly, a basic function of congregational music within the service should be to participate actively in worship through music. This active participation in worship is, of course, one of the foundation-stones of Protestantism, a democratization of religion that was one of the great achievements of the Reformation. If congregational song is to fulfill this function, it is obvious that no performer-audience relationship is possible; all members of the congregation must participate actively in the process of making music. Thus, congregation music must make its impact felt not through the hearing experience, as with choir music, but through the performing experience. …” [“The American Tradition of Church Song,” in Music and Musicians in Early America: Aspects of the History of Music in Early America and the History of Early American Music, Irving Lowens (New York: Norton, 1964), p. 283.]

The paradigmatic composer of this American music was William Billings (link to some sound files of Billing’s music performed both by professional choirs and amateurs). Billings wrote songs that can be sung by average people with average voices, yet they are musically interesting enough to hold the attention of sophisticated musicians. The songs are written in four-part harmony where each part has enough melodic interest to keep all singers interested and involved. The songs are unaccompanied, and are in that sense truly democratic — there is no paid accompanist, no soloist who is more important than the other singers; just as in political democracy, everyone has to participate in this music to make it work. And as is true of a robust democracy, education is an integral part of the process; Billings was one many New England singing-school masters who taught young people how to sing in four-part harmony. We’re talking about truly democratic music.

This is why I have a visceral dislike of praise bands: the sole reason for the existence of praise bands is to drown us out so that we don’t really have to participate, or so other can ignore us if we sound bad; that is profoundly anti-democratic. This is why I don’t care for song leaders who use a microphone in church to make sure their solo harmony part is heard above the unwashed masses who sing in unison; their purpose is not to get everyone singing together, their purpose is to have the masses singing so they can perform a solo over it; again, this is not democratic in the sense Lowens uses the word in the paragraph above.

I wish I had an easy solution to the problem, but I don’t. The solution to the problem simple, but not easy — the solution is to take the time to teach people how to sing, just like the solution to the problem of not enough volunteers in our congregations is to teach people how to do lay leadership. In a culture that values consumption over self-cultivation, education is a tough sell, unless it is education that directly improves your earning potential so that you can increase your consumption. As long as we have people coming into our congregations expecting to consume religion (rather than co-create it), I guess we’re going to have problems with congregational singing.

Number 163 at the bottom

So on Sunday, a personal problem came up that made me cranky and upset — enough so that I had lots of crazy dreams and didn’t sleep well that night. To make it worse, Carol is back east right now, so I couldn’t talk with her about it. I woke up with a bit of a sore throat, feeling as if I was starting to come down with a cold. I called Carol and she calmed me down. But I still felt as if I were coming down with a cold — headache, aches and pains, sore throat, tired. The problem still loomed large in my thoughts.

I almost didn’t go to my Monday evening Sacred Harp singing group, but finally I decided I would go anyway. Sacred Harp singing carries on a long tradition of unaccompanied hymn singing that has been practiced in North America continuously since the 1720s. This is not whitebread church hymn singing, this is full-throated white spiritual singing, maybe not quite the thing you want to sing when you’ve got a bit of a sore throat. But I thought I would go, and leave when I started to feel tired.

You never know who’s going to show up at a Sacred Harp singing. We usually get 15 or so people on Monday evenings, but this week maybe 25 people showed up. A woman with the reputation of being a strong alto singer was visiting from Portland, and all the better regular singers seemed to show up this week. There were only four basses, two of whom were good strong experienced Sacred Harp singers, and two of us who most definitely were not. There I was, sitting on the front bench, where I didn’t belong, sitting there only because there weren’t enough experienced basses; there I was, feeling ill and tired, thinking that I would sing two or three songs and then go home.

That alto from from Portland was a powerful singer, and some of the regular singers were in fine voice, and the emotional temperature of the room kept rising. I got carried along. One of the experienced basses stood up and said he’d like to lead number 236; this is a long complicated anthem composed by William Billings in 1787, with several solos by the bass section; I had never sung it before; yet somehow I managed to sight-read the whole thing and never get lost and only hit one or two wrong notes; not due to any great musical skill on my part, but just getting carried along by the other singers. The emotional temperature kept rising. Someone stood up to lead number 365, a complicated lengthy song dating from 1765, with repeated chords based on open fifths, what rock guitarists call power chords, and with fuguing sections and polyphony, and somehow I managed to keep my place all the way through. I had to keep my place and keep singing; there was no choice not to; I had forgotten about going home early.

The other experienced bass stood up to lead number 163b, a slow, short, simple song. It was simple, but the trebles would hit some high notes in the sixth bar, and then the altos, especially that alto from Portland, would bend some long notes on a little descending run, and those altos would drive the tenors and us basses to blow out some high notes in the tenth and twelth bars — the only thing I can compare it to is when good jazz or blues musicians get going, and the different musicians keep pushing each other to get more intense with every repeating chorus — except this wasn’t jazz, and this wasn’t professional musicians, this was just us sitting around and hitting these emotional climaxes. And there was no one to hear us singing but us, and maybe God if you believe in a God who bothers to listen to us humans singing.

By this time, I was sweating with the effort of singing with such intensity, and my shirt was sticking to the back of the bench. We got done singing number 163b, and the leader paused for a moment in the sudden silence, looking a little stunned. He said quietly, “Wow. Thank you.” I thought maybe his legs were shaking just a little.

That was the high point. The rest was pretty good, too. By the time we got done, I was no longer cranky and upset, and I no longer felt the least bit ill. My problem was still there, it was still serious, but it no longer loomed large. It would be a good idea always to remember that singing, even amateur singing done not for performance but for the sheer joy of it, can heal you.

Universalist composer

I’ve been looking through some shape-note hymnals, and came across this interesting tidbit in The Norumbega Harmony, in the introductory essay by Stephen Marini*:

“The greatest musical influence in Maine… was Supply Belcher…. Belcher’s primary successor was Abraham Maxim, a native of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, who settled during the 17090s in Turner [Maine], where he taught singing schools and converted to Universalism. Maxim’s Oriental Harmony (1802) and Northern Harmony (1805) reflect the [William] Billings-Belcher influence that thoroughly dominated Maine’s singing school tradition.”

Although he is little more than a footnote today, Maxim (b. 1773 – d. 1829 Palmyra, Somerset County, Maine) must be the earliest North American Universalist composer whose works survive today. The Norumbega Harmony contains two compositions by Maxim, settings of hymns by Isaac Watts. Both compositions are fuguing tunes (for the record, Buckfield, p. 166 is an L.M. tune; Machais, p. 169, is a P.M. tune), and a quick look reveals that both seem musically interesting. Universalist hymnodists and choirs, take note!

* Stephen Marini is the historian who wrote the ground-breaking Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England, a third of which book covered the indigenous Universalism of central New England; thus Marini knows his early New England Universalism. Marini’s other major scholarly publication is Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture.

Shape note singing & today’s hymnody

At the New England Folk Festival, one of the workshops I attended was an introduction to shape note singing. Shape note singing is a tradition of hymn singing that stretches back to the singing schools established by North American ministers in the second half of the 18th C. as a way to improve congregational singing. The shape note tradition began in New England with composers like William Billings (1746-1800) of Boston, moved south where it produced books like The Southern Harmony in 1854, and held on into the 20th C. in Appalachia and a few other out-of-the-way regions. Finally, starting about 1975 shape note singing enjoyed a nation-wide renaissance with singing groups from New England to California (link to list of regional singings). Thus shape note singing is an indigenous North American musical tradition with an unbroken two-and-a-quarter-century history.

At the workshop I attended, I learned the basics of one shape-note tradition. The music is sung in four parts (sometimes three parts) and is printed in a distinctive style of musical notation where the note-heads have different shapes depending on the pitch. The singing style is full-throated and open, even a little nasal. The singers are always arranged in a square divided into four sections: tenors or leads (they carry the melody) in one section; sopranos or trebles to their right; altos to the right of sopranos; and basses to the right of the altos and the left of the leads. The center of this square is left open and whoever is leading a given hymn stands in the center facing the tenors, and beats time (the front row of tenors also beat time for those who can’t see the song leader).

As a working minister, what really struck me is the gap between singing shape-note hymns for an hour sitting in a square on the one hand, and the realities of incorporating hymn-singing into real-life liturgy on the other hand. Shape-note singing started as a singing school, a way to teach ordinary people how to sight-read four-part harmony; the singing master would come to your town for six weeks or some months, and lots of people would learn how to sing shape-note hymns, and then the singing master would go away and (in theory, at least) a big percentage of your congregation would have some basic music skills. Of course, when you use shape-note hymns in a worship service, I can’t see that you would have everyone sit in a square, and divide up your congregation by tenors, sopranos, etc. But the shape-note hymnal embodies the teaching method of the singing master.

What particularly interested me is that shape-note singing connects a specific hymnal with the pedagogical method (teaching people how to sight-read music, etc.). Hymnals such as The Scared Harp are both teaching tools, and liturgical resources. Compare that to the hymnal that I use everyday, Singing the Living Tradition, which seems to be written by musicians for other musicians; there is no concession made to the non-musician, and there are no singing schools to help people how to use that hymnal. The new Unitarian Universalist hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, makes even less of a concession to non-musicians — most of the hymns require an accomplished or professional accompanist, some of the hymns stretch out over six pages (requiring three page turns) — while it contains some beautiful music, it’s really a hymnal for trained soloists and choir directors, not a hymnal for the average member of a congregation. Having peeked into the hymnals of other denominations, I think this is a widespread problem.

Contrast a hymnal like Singing the Journey with the group singing songbook Rise Up Singing. Rise Up includes only lyrics and simple chord progressions, no musical notation — you either have to know a song, or you have to have a song leader who can lead the song. Rise Up has a pedagogical method implicit in it:– you learn to sing by singing songs you’re already familiar with, and then when you gain confidence you’re willing to learn new songs that are led campfire-style (mostly unison singing, with simple guitar strumming) by a song leader. I’ve used both Rise Up and Singing the Living Tradition extensively, and in my experience, Rise Up is much better at empowering average singers to simply sing.

I’m not suggesting that we replace our hymnal with Rise Up Singing (although I have used Rise Up successfully in worship services). But we could learn this from shape note singing:– every hymnal could include a coherent pedagogical method that will improve the skills of the average singer.