Monday, June 11, 2012
Music of the Sacred Harp
It is interesting that the authors of the Sacred Harp songbook did not invent shaped notes. A legend says they were invented by a tenth century Italian Benedictine monk named Guido d’Arezzo.
HENDERSON There is a harp that has been sounded in Henderson, Texas for more than 145 years. No, this is not the magic harp that once sang through ancient Tara’s halls, or maybe it is. Maybe it’s better and more beautiful.
The East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention was organized in 1868. It takes place in Henderson every year. The East Texas Sacred Heart Convention is the second oldest continuous singing convention in the United States. It is always held at the Henderson Civic Center at 1005 Highway 64 West on the second Saturday and Sunday in August.
The Sacred Harp is the sound of the human voice as it sings hymns to God. It is a form of religious fundamentalist folk music that took its name from Elisha J. King and Benjamin Franklin White’s songbook,The Sacred Harp, which was published in 1844. Sacred Harp music is sometimes called fasola music because of the names of its shaped musical notes. The unusual shape-note songbook uses four shaped notes as a way for singers who do not read music to learn how to read their choir parts. The songs are old-fashioned spirituals.
The Sacred Harp tradition began as part of the singing school movement which started in New England before the American Revolution. Some say it started as far back as the 1700s. Others say it was earlier. The movement grew in popularity through America’s rural South and eventually found its way to Texas.
It is interesting that the authors of the Sacred Harp songbook did not invent shaped notes. A legend says they were invented by a tenth century Italian Benedictine monk named Guido d’Arezzo. The brothers of his monastery had good voices, but they could not read music. Still, it was important that they learn melodies and chants for their church services. Fra Guido used a combination of shape notes and hand signals to teach them what they needed to know. He taught them an easily recognized scale that is now popularly recognized as “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-te-do.”
Early English singing schools used the syllables fa, sol, la, and mi to represent the tones of a musical scale. The method helped in sight-reading and allowed people to learn a singing part without knowing how to read music. To make the singing even easier, The Sacred Harp uses a 4-syllable system. A major scale would be sung fa, sol, la, fa, sol, la, mi, fa. A triangle corresponds to fa, a circle to sol, a rectangle to la, and a diamond to mi. The interval from a shape to its next occurrence in the key is always a perfect fourth, and there is always a half step leading to fa (la-fa and mi-fa).
The repetition of shapes may make the system seem confusing at first, particularly to those who read conventional music, but singers say it is not difficult and is actually helpful once they are familiar with it. The shape notes are only important to the way the music is printed. When the music is sung, it sounds the same as it would sound if traditional rounded notes were used. The music has a lot of history in its rhythms and melodies. Many of them come from distant lands and distant times. Others come from the American history of the 18th and 19th centuries. A singing can include 18th century spirituals, ballads, and even the dance tunes of colonial America and England. Some of the songs are 200 to 300 years old.
The three types of Sacred Harp songs are the hymn or psalm, the fuguing tune and the anthem. The hymn is the simplest song where all voices are sung together. Fuguing tunes are more complicated. Anthems are the longest and most complex of the tunes.
Early singers would learn how to sing a tune by first singing the notes as sounds without words. When they knew the notes, they would repeat the song and add the lyrics. This is still the way to learn how to participate in a Sacred Harp singing. The singers arrange themselves around the room in a large square according to their voice. All the trebles face the basses. All the tenors face the altos. The leader takes the space in the middle of the square where the others can look for direction. The intention is for the entire group to work together to build a sound and spirit which can be enjoyed by all the singers. Because of its nature, the style of Sacred Harp singing is fresh and unpolished. It is religious music, and it is meant to be meaningful to every person who sings it. The singing is intended to be loud, filled with joy and enthusiasm, and to express the emotion of the singers and the songs.
In recent years, the popularity of Sacred Harp singing has enjoyed a revival in many parts of the United States and is no longer limited to the rural South. Many East Texas communities once held monthly singings with dinner on the grounds and a friendly social time. All-day singings began early, at 9 or 10 in the morning and lasted until 2 or 3 in the afternoon with a break for lunch at the noon hour. The local singers and members of the host church traditionally provided dinner on the grounds. Several communities still hold monthly singings with or without dinner, and singers look forward to annual singings such as The East Texas Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Henderson where large groups come together.
Go to www.texasfasola.org/audio/newry.mp3 to hear how the music of a Sacred Heart hymn swells to fill a room. Then go to www.texasfasola.org/audio/stratfield.mp3 to hear a more complicated fuguing tune, and finally go to www.texasfasola.org/audio/easter.mp3 to hear the sound clip of a full anthem.
Better still, go to a Sacred Harp singing and hear the music for yourself.
If you would like more information, or to find out more about the nearest singing, please call Robert Vaughn at 903-863-5379.