Recorded at Campion Center, Weston, MA, March, 1993
Erato CD 4509-92874-2
"They play with an exuberance that left me wanting to sing out loud."
HE BOSTON CAMERATA
Anne Azéma, soprano
Elizabeth Anker, contralto
William Hite, tenor
Daniel McCabe, baritone
Joel Frederiksen, bass-baritone
Robert Mealy, violin
Jonathan Talbott, violin
Patrick Jordan, viola
Emily Walhout, violoncello
Anne Trout, double bass
Jesse Lepkoff, flute, guitar
Joel Cohen, guitar
Michael Collver, fluegelhorn
Steven Lundahl, baritone horn
THE SCHOLA CANTORUM OF BOSTON
Frederick Jodry, director
THE BROWN UNIVERSITY CHORUS
Frederick Jodry, director
production coordinator: Betty Alice Fowler
special thanks to: Barbara Owen, Newburyport, Ma.; Harvard Musical Association, Boston Ma.
This recording is dedicated to the memory of Randall Thompson (1899-1984).
American music: A meditation.
"Christmas music," -- this desperate thought tends to arrive in the minds of some North American residents shortly before December 24 -- "is really pretty hard to take." This sentiment occurs after the yearly, omnipresent onslaught of "standard" carols -- their banality, the vacuity of their glitzy arrangements -- has nearly succeeded in turning many otherwise kind and generous people into Scrooge forever. Where, we may ask, are the songs the mass media forgot to promote? Where are the true and good works of the American spirit? Why are they so hard to come by? The answer, at least in part, has to do with the way we tend in this country to become estranged from our own roots. For in fact, our music history has been written wrong, and our past denied.
No wonder it takes some effort to locate our best music. Our past denied? That is a heavy accusation, and a hard one to prove all up and down the line: but let us test it with one work that was highly respected in its (fairly recent) day: Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, American Supplement (New York, 1941). We search its pages for fact and opinion concerning the musical world of the present program: Some of William Billings' music, according to this once-standard reference work, "continued in use for some time, though steadily replaced by the better productions of later writers." (Italics are mine throughout this paragraph).
Concerning early American tune-books in general, Grove's opines that "though the technical art displayed...was often crude and faulty, the movement did much to spread skill in singing, to awaken popular interest in music, and to prepare the way for more artistic enterprises." Concerning early nineteenth century hymn books of the less "learned" type, the judgement is severe: "Taken together, these lesser books have contained a huge amount of original music, but usually of so trivial and ephemeral a character that no summary of them is here attempted." I find no citation in the 1941 Grove's of the most important sources of Southern folk hymnody -- not The Southern Harmony, not The Sacred Harp.
There is mention neither of William Walker nor of Major B. F. White, although Lowell Mason's biography takes up nearly three columns. We began with religious music; but American sacred song is not the only area in which almost everything real and vital in our music history is ignored or written off by the official Grove's chronicle.
Stephen Collins Foster does get an entry, but there is nothing on Joplin (Grove's does allow, paternalistically, that "in the future the various colleges for Negroes will become able to magnify training so as to produce decided results.") Charles Ives (b. 1874) does not exist for the 1941 Grove's, not even in the rapid survey of post-1900 activity, but Deems Taylor (b. 1885) has an entry, and there are elogious articles on Edward MacDowell and Mrs. H.H.A. Beach (the latter with a full-page photo). And don't even think of looking for Jelly Roll Morton's (b. 1885) name in these paler-than-thou pages. Conclusion: Our official music history has misled us. The finest of the wheat has too often been thrown aside, and much energy is spent cataloguing and canonising the chaff. Americans, awake! We have one of the most rich, diverse, and challenging musical civilisations on this planet!
We also, unfortunately, have a collective inferiority complex abour popular culture, and a dreary, stifling tendency to make "official" thoughts and "correct" attitudes replace the spontaneous movements of the soul. As a result, the media and the official circuits of distribution often ignore what is best in our musical heritage, and the public has been miseducated to prefer counterfeit culture to the real thing. Much of American music defies classification -- that is in large part why academic historians have such trouble dealing with it.
The early-tune-book/ folk-hymn repertoire on which this program is largely based is a perfect case in point. The forms are dead simple, the part writing is often rough and ignorant of the "rules." Is this art music? By conservatory standards, it fails the test -- anyway, it was intended for amateurs, not career professionals. The tunes often evoke English and Scottish folksongs (some of them clearly are European folksongs, preserved in the New World). But this repertoire is written down in books, so the pure ethnomusicologists, who study only oral transmission, also turn away.
The musical style or styles are profoundly atavistic, evoking medieval polyphony or Renaissance partsong, and "concert-hall" singing techniques are inappropriate. But this stuff was mainly published in the nineteenth century, so it can't be "early music," can it now? Neither classical music nor folk music, neither "early" nor "modern," this body of song is nonetheless true and signifigant art. It is about important things -- life and death, faith and doubt, struggle and regeneration.
It is drawn up, in a natural and unselfconscious way, both from the wellsprings of European music, and from the everyday experience of people on this continent. It is full of melodic invention and fresh, spontaneous harmony. In the Christmas-related repertoire we now present to you, the timeless contemplation of rebirth and renewal are given new meaning and immediacy. Some of our texts are directly connected to the season; others echo and comment on the holiday themes (the profoundly spiritual ones, not the reindeers and jingle bells). A few of these tunes will be familiar to most of us as "Christmas carols;" others have a Christmas resonance even today, as they continue to be sung in isolated parts of this country.
Still others are probably receiving their first performances since the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Neglected and shunned, like the baby Jesus himself, these small American masterpieces nonetheless speak with the clear, pure voice of grace, recalling the inner sense of the season, and restoring a part of our own selves.
Newburyport, March 1993
Notes on the Music
I. Prepare ye the way
Watchman of Zion
source: The Philharmonia (Elkhart, Indiana, 1875)
Many late-Renaissance tunes survive in the corpus of American Protestant hymnody. This is the familiar Lutheran chorale Wachet auf, sung in English, from a German-American shapenote book of the Mennonite tradition.
source: The American Harmony; or Royal Melody Complete. (Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1771)
Originating in England ca. 1760, this vigorous minor-mode tune was very popular in early New England. Our choice of performance forces -- male voices doubled at the higher octave by instruments --- reflects what we know about early practice in English country churches. The use of womens' voices, rather than instruments, to create the higher octave was a later approach especially favored in America, where musical instruments were presumably somewhat scarcer
source: The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion (Philadelphia, 1854)
Although mixed voices are the rule in both colonial and modern-day "singing-schools," many American works, as well, are very effective in same octave voicings, and were perhaps "heard" this way in the arrangers' ears. From William Walker's great, seminal collection of Southern shape-note music comes this haunting melody and its harmonization. Each of the three parts (added succesively in our performance) has its own melodic integrity; this linear way of hearing is characteristic of the Southern shapenote style.
source: Original Sacred Harp, Denson Revision (Bremen, Georgia, 1971) "B.F. White, 1844. alto by S.M. Denson, 1911."
The other major source of shape-note song is B.F. White's Sacred Harp, originally published in 1844 but still in print and still widely used. In keeping with twentieth-century vernacular performance practice of this repertoire, the three-part texture of the original composition is filled out with an added alto line. The quartal-quintal nature of the original harmonies thus take on a somewhat "softer" triadic aspect. Here, too, we double the tenor line at the higher octave, a common practice in America since colonial days.
II. A Virgin unspotted
A Christmas Hymn
source: The American Harmony (3-part setting); The Village Harmony (Exeter, New Hampshire, 1798) (4-part setting)
The first vocal setting you will hear is a three-part piece in the English country-parish style. In the second setting, sung by a larger group, the music has been "Americanized" in the original source by the addition of a treble voice.
A Virgin Most Pure
source: Carols Old and Carols New (Boston, 1916)
A Virgin Unspotted (3'00")
source: Wyeth's Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1820)
This well-known English carol was also, it is clear, popular in early America -- and the American version of the tune, from John Wyeth's hymnbook, is one of the simplest and purest to have survived, an example of how American music contains within itself part of the European heritage as well. In this performance, "Old World" and "New World" versions of the song are heard in alternation.
source: William Billings, The Singing Master's Assistant (Boston, 1778)
Billings' jaunty setting of his own poetry is, characteristically, resonant with echoes of English folksong -- yet the music is unmistakably his alone.
III.Lo, the Bridegroom
The Heavenly Courtier
source: The Christian Harmony, or Songster's Companion (Exeter, New Hampshire, 1805)
A few pieces from The Christian Harmony, Jeremiah Ingall's collection of hymns and songs from Northern New England, found their way into the Southern books and are still sung today; but most of Ingalls' music is still too little known and rarely if ever heard. Evidently at work for a more countrified clientele than his Boston colleagues just a few miles down the road, Ingalls in his 1805 songbook created a priceless source of Anglo-American folklore, and the true ancestor of the Southern shape-note style. The many folktunes and their simple, rugged three-part settings have little to do with the aesthetic norms of late-baroque or classical style. They sound, therefore, "earlier" than most works in the eighteenth-century hymnbooks. The Heavenly Courtier is probably an adaptation of an English secular ballad; its melody seems to be related to La Mantovana (a.k.a. The Italian Rant), a dance tune popular in Elizabethan England. Our performance extracts the melody from Ingalls' setting, and adds a basic guitar accompaniment.
source: Donald W. Patterson, The Shaker Spiritual (Princeton, 1976)
The erotic yearning of Heavenly Courtier finds an echo in a number of other American spirituals. Sister Patsy Williamson, a black Shaker from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, wrote this little song in 1849. In his excellent work on Shaker spirituals, Patterson remarks that Pretty Home "shows no trace of black song style," but in this case we beg to differ with scholarly authority.
The Midnight cry
source: Original Sacred Harp, Denson Revision (Bremen, Georgia, 1971) "Alto by S.M. Denson, 1911....None of the books we can get hold of give the name of the auther of this music. It is an old tune and has been in use for 100 years."
Another meditation on Christ the Bridegroom; this song also seems related to the Shaker ceremony of the "Midnight Cry," a community-wide exercise in spiritual renewal. Our performance, using various combinations of voices on succeeding strophes, explores the various sound possibilities inherent in the shapenote idiom: we stress the music's roots in same-octave sonorities, with possibilities for octave doublings. Clearly, the anonymous and half-tutored musician who set this tune had a superbly keen natural ear.
IV. I wonder as I wander
source: oral tradition, performer's family
This melody has numerous incarnations, both sacred and secular, in the American folk tradition, and seems to have a special kind of emotional signifigance for those who preserve and transmit it.
source: Ingalls, The Christian Harmony
In this writer's opinion, Slow Traveller, here performed in all likelihood for the first time since the early eighteen hundreds, is one of the finest examples of American song of any period. It is also a significant music-historical "find," since, as closer inspection reveals, its tune is a variant of a carol sung in Coventry, England during the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, part of a cycle of mystery plays first performed during the fifteenth century.
I wonder as I wander
source: John Jacob Niles, Songs of the Hill Folk (New York, 1912)
Collected by Niles in Cherokee County, North Carolina, this song has since been adapted into the "official" canon of American Christmas music and as such is frequently heard nowadays in overly-elaborate and inappropriate arrangements. It has been fitted in our performance with a guitar accompaniment of the simplest kind.
Lullay my tiny little child (Slow traveller)
source: Ingalls, The Christian Harmony
The Christmas-related text, substantially the same in both its early English versions, and an appalachian variant collected by John Jacob Niles, is here sung to the Coventry Carol melody, as that tune was transcribed and harmonized by Ingalls under the name Slow Traveller in 1805.
V. Shepherds, rejoice
source: Ingalls, The Christian Harmony
Images of nature and fertility, gardens and growth, abound in the American spiritual repertoire, serving both as a metaphor for religious feelings, and as a reminder of daily life for people who in fact lived close to a land that had not yet been paved over with shopping malls.
source: Crawford, The Core Repertory of Early American Psalmody (Madison, 1984)
Published in England in 1782, this tune first appeared in an American songbook in 1801. Its association with the English-language text we all know ("O come, all ye faithful") seems to date from the mid-nineteenth century. Our performance relies on the earlier transmission. The flute variation is by the soloist, Jesse Lepkoff.
source: A Selection of Spiritual Songs (New York, 1878); "Thos. Hastings"
"One reason why the music on the Lord's Day often has so feeble a force," complained Charles S. Robinson, compiler of the Northern collection, Spiritual Songs, "is found in its exclusiveness as a thing of high art. It remains too far out of reach of the people." His songbook attempted to bring his presumably-citified public back in touch with a more popular religiosity. Triadic and tonal in character (and thus different from the Southern shapenote spirituals), this lovely tune is nonetheless solidly rooted in Anglo-American folksong idiom. Our instrumental accompaniments are derived from the four-part harmony provided by the original source.
While shepherds watched
source: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (New York, 1867)
The mostly-Victorian, mostly-respectable Northern collection which serves as our source preserves a few authentic folksongs in the "back of the book;" in fact, this version of the tune, with its modal inflection on the fourth degree of the scale, is to this musician's ears a better and perhaps more authentic one than the "smoothed-out" variant one often sees reproduced nowadays (for example, in the Oxford Book of Carols.)
source: Original Sacred Harp, Denson Revision (Bremen, Georgia, 1971)
Composed by the Connecticut musician Daniel Read in 1793, this vigorous fuguing-tune has never gone out of use, and is still a perennial favorite at shapenote sings. We sing it first with male voices only, and then in "dispersed harmony," with the soprano and tenor lines each doubled at the octave.
source (music): The New Harp of Columbia (Nashville, 1867)
The tune is, of course, Auld Lang Syne, in a lively shapenote harmonization from the Old Harp tradition; the text is by Isaac Watts.
VII. Light of the World
source: William Walker, The Christian Harmony (Philadelphia, 1867)
The melody is a close relative of Wayfaring Stranger.
source: Walker, The Christian Harmony
Walker's note in the source reads as follows: "This beautiful old tune was set to music by E.J. King, junior author of the 'Sacred Harp,' who died a few weeks after its publication, much lamented by his Christian brethren and musical friends."
Hush my babe, lie still and slumber
source (music): The American Vocalist (Boston, 1849)
The poem by Isaac Watts is here sung to a soulful, widely-diffused folk-hymn tune, known variously as Charlestown, Deal Gently With Thy Servants, and Blind Bartimaeus.
Jesus the Light of the World
source: The Finest of the Wheat: Hymns New and Old for Missionary and Revival Meetings and Sabbath-Schools (Chicago, 1890). "Geo. D. Elderkin, arr."
As the nineteenth century waned, the revival hymns, with their simple, keyboard-derived harmonies and rollicking refrains, displaced many a genuine folksong; but the best of them have an appeal of their own. The opening phrase of this one, published in 1890, bears an uncanny resemblance to the "Going Home" theme of Dvorak's New World Symphony, composed circa 1893. It is tempting to see the similarity as more than coincidental: was Dvorak in fact familiar with this song? Could he have been reluctant to acknowledge his debt to such a lowbrow source as this?
Joy to the World
source: The New Harp of Columbia
Despite its origins in the "other" America, that world of starched collars, overstuffed furniture, and institutional art, we were reluctant to leave this very popular American carol (loosely based on a theme from Handel's Messiah) by the wayside. The Boston composer Lowell Mason (1792-1872), author of Joy to the World and director of the august Handel and Haydn Society from 1827 to 1832, spent his long career trying to "correct" the vital American folkhymn tradition and to replace it with something blander, and worse. He was rewarded for his largely successful efforts with fame, fortune, and a place in all standard music history textbooks, while true geniuses like the anonymous harmoniser of Midnight Cry lie in ummarked graves... Christmas is nonetheless an inclusive holiday and a time of reconciliation; America is a big, forgiving place; and Joy to the World has a good tune. It even turns up in a few Southern shapenote books. Performing Mason's carol in Southern-style "dispersed harmony," with both soprano and tenor lines doubled, gives an unbuttoned, homespun aspect to this morsel of official Victoriana.
These notes are © by Joel Cohen