Regular Pittsburgh shape-note singings
Monthly singing at the Church of the Redeemer: we sing from the Denson Sacred Harp the first Saturday of each month 1:00–3:30 PM at the Church of the Redeemer at 5700 Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. We have books for loan or sale. Please be vaccinated against covid if possible! Masks are optional; you might consult the latest from the Allegheny County Health Department to help you decide whether to mask.
Monthly singing at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary: in March 2023 we'll begin singing the third Saturday of each month 11:00–1:00 at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (616 N Highland Ave). We hope to get the chapel, but that is being negotiated. We'll sing primarily from Mitch Stecker's book The Psalmist's Harp, but feel free to bring other things. Mitch has enough books for us to sing from.
Our covid project
To get ourselves through the first few months of covid time we created this overdubbed recording of Granville 547 by the incomparable Judy Hauff.
Thanks to everyone who's sent me something! The singers are Nick, Susan, Amalia, Penny, Heidi, Daphne, Leslie, Flawn, Phil, Karen, Jo, and Peter. Hearing your dear voices is such a pleasure!
What is shape-note singing?
Perhaps the best place to start looking is the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association web page.
Jack Puskar (who sings great tenor with us) made this table of the 25 most-often sung pieces from the Sacred Harp.
There's a wonderful article here by Laurie Kay Sommers about the Hoboken GA Sacred Harp singers, including some audio and video.
We had a really nice sing in July 2019 in the Covenanter church building (built in the 1830s) at the Depreciation Lands Museum.
A short report on our outreach of November 4th 2018 in The Kittanning Paper.
Singing in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Worthington PA:
After singing in the tent in Schenley Plaza (thanks to Donna Isaac of Calliope for organizing!). Thanks to Jo Schlesinger for the photo! See here for more pictures.
Shape note factlets
Shape note singing is a descendant of the usually unaccompanied harmony singing practiced in 18th-century New England churches. Before that time, the congregations sang hymns and metrical psalms in unison using a lining-out procedure: the deacon (or minister) would read the verse, then the deacon "set" a line by singing it to the psalm tune, and the congregation in response sang the same thing (in theory!), and the setting and singing proceeded line by line. No organs or other instruments, not even a pitch-pipe, were allowed in the New England churches, so the poor deacon had quite a job, as everyone who has "pitched" for shape-note singing knows (but the deacon was responsible not only for the pitch, but for knowing the tune and leading it). Here's a bit from the diary of Samuel Sewell, deacon for Boston's South Meeting House:
Dec. 28, 1705. ... Mr Willard preaches from Ps. 66.20 very excellently. Spake to me to set the Tune; I intended Windsor, and fell into High Dutch; and then, essaying to set another Tune went into a Key much too high. So I prayed Mr White to set it; which he did well, Litchf. Tune. The Lord humble me and instruct me, that I should be the occasion of any interruption in the Worship of God.
[Source: Alan Clark Buechner. Yankee Singing Schools and the Golden Age of Choral Music in New England, 1760–1800.]
Here's an interesting short piece by the writer Charles Fergus on Ananias Davisson, author of Idumea, and his book The Kentucky Harmony, which was so important in spreading shape note music as the frontiers expanded.
In Melville's Moby Dick (chapter 22), when the Pequod sets sail from Nantucket on an icy Christmas evening, Captain Bildad, the pious Quaker who owns part of the ship, pilots her out of the harbor. The narrator describes the scene as follows:
As the old Craft deep dived into the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, Bildad's steady notes were heard.
"Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,
Stand dressed in living green.
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between."
Never did those sweet words sound more sweetly to me than then.
[Bildad was singing Jordan (first) by Billings. Source: The Core Repertory of Early American Psalmody]
At the Augusta Heritage Festival 2015, Dr. Ron Pen of the University of Kentucky did a presentation in honor of Jean Ritchie (who died the previous spring). It seems the Ritchie family's custom was to get up before dawn on Christmas morning and go out singing carols. One of the songs they sang on these occasions was Wondrous Love. I had the privilege of participating in the singing of this hymn for Ron's presentation.
Videos from the Pittsburgh Regional All-Day Singing: Saturday March 22 2014
Thanks to Michael Kearney!
Be sure to check out the online offerings from Augusta this summer!
Augusta Heritage Center, Davis & Elkins College, Elkins, WV
Once again I have the good luck to be running the morning warm-ups for Vocal Week at the Augusta Heritage Center!