Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Four-part harmony

With GAFCON, Lambeth and St Bartholomew the Great, there may not be much harmony these days in the Anglican communion. However, satirist Garrison Keilor harkens back to earlier days when harmony was the hallmark of Episcopalians.† Here is the excerpt relevant to hymnody:
We make fun of Episcopalians for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them. If you were to ask an audience in Des Moines, a relatively Episcopalianless place, to sing along on the chorus of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Episcopalians, they'd smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! ....And down the road!

Many Episcopalians are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony, a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person's rib cage. It's natural for Episcopalians to sing in harmony. We are too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you're singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it's an emotionally fulfilling moment. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.

I do believe this, people: Episcopalians, who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you could call up when you're in deep distress. If you are dying, they will comfort you. If you are lonely, they'll talk to you. And if you are hungry, they'll give you tuna salad!

Episcopalians believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud. Episcopalians like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas.
Ruth Gledhill (of The Times of London) reprints the essay this week in her blog, but a quick Google search suggests it dates back at least to March 2007. It might just be an urban legend: the essay is widely attributed to Keilor — who grew up among Lutherans though now is an Episcopalian — but is nowhere to be found on his official website.

The other problem with harmony in TEC is that it’s being driven out of the liturgy. Hymnal 1982 removes the SATB from many of the hymns, including about half of the mass settings and all but two verses of the Vaughan Williams harmonies for Sine Nomine. Meanwhile, for the non-hymnal parishes, the easy listening “contemporary” worship music doesn’t get reused enough for the congregation to learn the parts.

† Given that Keilor is a financial supporter of Barack Obama, Al Franken and MoveOn.org, it seems likely that he sides with the TEC in America’s current Episcopalian/Anglican split.


Northland Al said...

Removing the harmony in the current hymnal is not a modern technique. Vaughan Williams himself stated that the congregation should sing "melody only," leaving parts to the choir. He was actually quite blunt on the subject.

From the 1906 English Preface (emphasis Vaughan Williams):

“Every hymn is so arranged that it can be sung in unison accompanied by the organ. Certain verses are marked as being specially suitable for unison singing, and it is suggested that the first verse of most hymns should be sung in unison as well as all the doxologies. In any case the congregation must always sing the melody, and the melody only.” http://www.ccel.org/

As a side note, I generally disagree with RVW on melody only but do generally insist the choir, to support the congregation is melody on verse one.

9.West said...

Thank you very much for your insight. It may be that with home pianos and increased literacy that singing harmony from the pews is a 20th century innovation. But my suspicion is that it’s more of an American one.

It may be that RVW is coming from a different tradition than the American one, even though PECUSA once claimed to share the same faith as the CEO. Visiting a COE cathedral last month, I got the sense that singing to the congregation was the cultural norm.

For that matter, I was struck by how common it was in the libraries and bookshops (if not the pews) for the COE to offer a words only "hymnal", without even a melody line. In buying used English hymnals I kept running across these words-only hymnals that grams had kept on her bookshelf until she died and the kids sold it to a used bookstore.

As far as I know, the 1940 and 1982 US hymnals have never been offered words only, although compact melody-only editions were clearly sold. Someday I hope to compile a complete list of all the editions of PECUSA hymnals.

Finally, I would note that some American denominations have music and harmony in the pews because there is (by doctrine) no choir and in some cases (such as Church of Christ) no instruments. Maybe some of these people were worshiping 150 years ago in a prairie wood church and wanted to sing, even if they lacked a pipe organ like that found at St. Paul's Cathedral.