What is Harmonia Sacra Singing?
Harmonia Sacra singing is one of a handful of surviving 19th century forms of
a capella religious singing. It is based on a shape-note tune book first published as Genuine Church Music by Joseph Funk in Winchester, Virginia in 1832. This book, later renamed the Harmonia Sacra, and since revised in 25 editions down to the present, is the oldest shape-note book in continuous use. Approximately 16 annual singings are held from it in Mennonite communities in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and some in Indiana.
The Harmonia Sacra [pronounced SAYCRA] singing tradition is one of several surviving branches of a movement that began in New England in the 1720s. The church music of the time, save for scattered pockets of greater musical development, was lined-out hymnody. A leader, deacon, or other literate person perhaps owning the only copy of a song book at hand, would sing the words to a verse of the hymn, the congregation would join in, then the leader would sing the second verse, etc. This manner of singing sounds rough, and not always musical. Lined out hymnody is still practiced today among the Old Regular Baptists in Kentucky, the Old Order Amish, and others.
Seeking to raise the standard of music during worship services, church leaders in New England began singing schools to teach the basics of music. Traveling singing masters would come to a town, and hold weeklong (or longer) classes. When they left, all the young people of the town had learned to sing. They also had an appetite for new pieces, and the singing masters often compiled collections of original and borrowed hymns to meet this demand.
Just after 1800, shape notes, also known as character or patent notes were introduced as a way to make sight reading easier. After selecting a starting pitch for the piece (which may be different from that in the printed score) and the use of these notes, which graphically convey the degree to which the singer needs to move up or down the scale to sing the next note, the singing of complicated pieces becomes much easier to grasp. Over the years there were many competing schemes – one used animal shapes, another numbers, but the system that was used the most was one in which geometrically shaped flags were placed at the top of the notes in the music - a triangle for Fa, an oval for Sol, a square for La, and a diamond for Mi. This system was used in the Sacred Harp, Southern Harmony, and in the first four editions of Funk’s Genuine Church Music.
Though the music of Genuine Church Music, and the later Harmonia Sacra came out of the singing school movement, Funk adjusted some of the tunes to make them more appropriate for the sensibilities of his Mennonite brethren.
He was successful in his efforts – in 1847 his book was chosen to provide tunes for the first book of Mennonite hymns in English – A Selection of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs.
In the fifth edition of his book in 1851, Funk change its name to Harmonia Sacra, and adopted a seven shape note system, which added shapes for “Do.” “Re,” and “Ti” to the four shapes used in earlier editions.
After his death in 1862, Funk’s grandsons Aldine S. Kieffer and Ephraim Ruebush continued his publishing enterprise, which developed into Ruebush, Kieffer & Company, one of the three leading publishers of Southern Gospel music (the others being the James D. Vaughan Publishing Company, and the Stamps-Baxter Publishing Company.
The 12th edition, in 1867, brought the addition of a fourth part to the former three part arrangements, and located the melody in the tenor part. In 1980 the 24th edition, introduced dramatic changes – the oblong format was changed to a more conventional hymnal format. The soprano and tenor parts were swapped, which mirrors the practice of singers in Shenandoah Valley, where the sopranos sing tenor and the tenors sing the soprano part.
With the 25th edition of 1993, the Harmonia Sacra returned to its roots, with a restoration of the format found in previous editions through the 23rd. Funk’s
Rudiments of Music, instructional matter on singing, which had been removed in 1878, was restored. Two sections of pieces from previous editions, and some in original three part voicing were included as well.
Though started in the North, shapenote singing fell out of use in many places, as gospel songs and more “correct” musical styles drawn from European music replaced tunes composed by un-trained singing school masters or arranged from the folk tradition. However in the South, singers kept the old ways of singing alive, and several other traditions based on 19th Century books still survive. These include the Sacred Harp, New Harp of Columbia aka Old Harp, Christian Harmony, and Southern Harmony.
Though not always on the public radar, singers from these traditions, gather at churches, fellowship halls, and other singing spaces to sing the old songs in the old ways. Singers are not as numerous now as in the days before radio, TV and recorded music. But what they lack in training and polish is replaced by the creation of a corporate singing experience that is a deeply spiritual experience for those involved.
For more information about Harmonia Sacra Singing
• The Harmonia Sacra is available from Good Books, Intercourse, PA. –www.goodbks.com.
• Visit www.fasola.org for information about Harmonia Sacra and other shapenote traditions.
The Recording/ Venue
This field recording was made at the Annual New Year’s Day Harmonia Sacra Singing at the Chapel of the Sermon on the Mount on the campus of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. The chapel is of contemporary design with a hard floor, wooden ceiling, leaded glass windows, and brick walls, which make for an acoustically live room. The class was composed of about 30 singers.
The singing was captured by two Behringer B-2 studio microphones, placed above and about 8-10 feet to the rear of the Alto section, processed through a Behringer pre-amp and into a Tascam DA 20 MKII Digital Audio Tape recorder. Transfer to the computer was accomplished with an Echo Mia soundcard, and editing conducted with Sony Soundforge software.