Many people attracted to shape-note singing become interested because of an existing interest in folklore, especially Anglo- and Irish-American folksong. Indeed, shape-note tunebooks such as The Sacred Harp include dozens of melodies originating in the oral traditions of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The first important scholar of the shape-note tunebooks, George Pullen Jackson, exhaustively documented these folkloric roots, and they remain a source of fascination for singers today.
But if you examine the contents of a book such as The Sacred Harp from start to finish, you will find that a considerable minority of songs do not have such folkloric roots. There are also unique compositions in a variety of styles, even including European common practice harmony of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Some of these tunes are rarely sung today, but others are among the most popular tunes in the book.
A standout example is one of the tunes named PLEYEL’S HYMN, by Ignaz Joseph Pleyel, a European contemporary of Haydn and Mozart.
This tune, unlike most others in shape-note books, uses stylistic devices of the Classical style:
- Bass part almost entirely devoted to the roots of I, IV, and V harmonies
- Dominant seventh harmony at cadences
- Appoggiaturas at cadences
The tune even carries an unusual oral tradition regarding dynamics: At some singings, the second half of the tune is sung first loudly, then softly.
In the middle decades of the 19th century, church music reformers such as Lowell Mason wanted to discard Colonial-era American compositions and folk hymns in preference for European hymns written in this style. Shape-note singers today usually revile this Eurocentric bias. But one does not need to agree with all of the aims of Mason and his school to recognize that European common practice harmony has produced many singable tunes. Common practice harmony, if considered as merely one style among many, is an important component of shape-note singing today.
I am including several tunes like PLEYEL’S HYMN in my forthcoming collection, The Liturgical Harp. Some of them have already appeared in previous shape-note collections, especially William Walker’s seven-shape collection The Christian Harmony. One example is the tune CHRISTMAS, originally from the opera Siroë by George Frideric Handel. My setting is the same as Walker’s, except that I have substituted the most commonly sung words today, Nahum Tate’s Christmas hymn “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.” (Downloadable .pdf sample.) This setting is compatible with settings in most currently used hymnals. And it’s also fun to sing!