Indexes of Congregational, Methodist, Episcopal hymnals

I have added indexes cross-referencing the tunes in The Liturgical Harp with the contents of three mainline hymnals. These indexes are available by selecting the “Indexes” category above.

  • The New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ)
  • The Hymnal 1982 (Episcopal Church)
  • The United Methodist Hymnal (1989)

In preparation for later release:

  • Evangelical Lutheran Worship
  • Presbyterian Hymnal (2012)

Sampler pamphlet is now available!

I am pleased to report that a sampler pamphlet drawn from the upcoming Liturgical Harp volume is now available for $5.00. I will be selling this pamphlet at upcoming all-day singings in New England, and you may also order it as a .PDF file. See the Sampler page for complete information about contents.

Sample tune setting: Christmas / Siroë

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.


Pleyel’s Hymn from Original Sacred Harp (1911)

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.

ChristmasSampleI 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!

Sample tune setting: Hyfrydol

Part of the Liturgical Harp project consists of looking through shape-note collections like The Sacred Harp in search of tunes that are also in common use in denominational hymnals. In a previous post I described my setting of NEW BRITAIN (“Amazing grace”), which is one of the most popular tunes in shape-note books, but also (in somewhat altered form) one of the most popular tunes in current hymnals.

The Liturgical Harp will also present tunes not found in any previous shape-note collection. I have been searching for tunes that could benefit from a setting in dispersed harmony and shape notes. These tunes usually have these characteristics:

  • A folklike or dancelike character
  • Little or no chromatic alteration
  • Polyphonic settings emphasizing linear part-writing rather than vertical harmonies
  • Less concern for the rules of European common practice counterpoint

Hyfrydol Sample1

Here is my setting of one such tune, the Welsh tune HYFRYDOL. (Downloadable PDF sample.) The melody (tenor part) is given exactly as found in most current hymnals, so that congregations can sing along with this setting. The other three parts, however, are newly composed, and are substantially different from the commonly published arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here is how my approach to the tune differs (an approach learned from my experience with shape-note tunebooks):

  1. Each line is meant to be of equal melodic interest, regardless of whether it forms parallel fifths or octaves with another part.
  2. There are no chromatic alterations in this setting.
  3. The subdominant harmony is used sparingly: only in the final phrase is the bass allowed to rest on the fourth scale degree.
  4. Common practice harmony is not shunned if it is appropriate. The middle section of the tune is harmonized in thirds in a passage deliberately evoking common practice harmony. Within the shape-note tunebooks, common practice harmony does occur, but only as one possible style among many. My model for this technique is the tune AMSTERDAM, which has a similar passage in thirds for a reduced ensemble.

Another feature of The Liturgical Harp is its orientation toward the greater importance of the liturgical year and the Common Lectionary in Protestant congregations. I present certain tunes with more than one choice of text, so that the tune can be used in different parts of the liturgical year. Here is the facing page to the setting of HYFRYDOL:

Hyfrydol Sample2

Unfortunately, it is not possible for me to include all of the dozens of hymn texts set to HYFRYDOL, and budgetary considerations require me to exclude any copyrighted texts. With help from the invaluable site, I have tried to include the most used public domain texts, in a rendering that is not drastically different from what is in most current hymnals. Music directors at churches participating in a license agreement such as OneLicense or CCLI can reprint copyrighted hymn texts for use with the settings in The Liturgical Harp.

Sample tune setting: New Britain (Amazing Grace)

The tune NEW BRITAIN, usually used to set the hymn “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” is at once one of the most popular hymn settings in Protestant worship today, and also one of the most popular hymn settings at shape-note singings. For this reason, it is a perfect candidate for a hymn that can bring together church choirs and shape-note singers.

However, on closer inspection there are incompatibilities between shape-note publications and Protestant hymnals as to how this tune is set. Namely:

New Century Hymnal (1995)

New Century Hymnal (1995)

Southern Harmony (1835)

Southern Harmony (1835)

  1. In shape-note books, the second phrase (“That saved a wretch like me…”) does not have a hold at the end of the phrase.
  2. In Protestant hymnals, the third phrase (“I once was lost, but now am found…”) is considerably different from what is found in shape-note books. (See comparison above.) This alteration is attributed to Edwin O. Excell.
  3. In shape-note books, the stanza beginning “When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” which was added to the hymn at a later date, is not provided (though I have heard it sung from memory at Sacred Harp conventions).

So what do you do if you are bringing together shape-note singers and a church congregation?

  1. You can say that the shape-note setting is the “authentic” version, and the denominational hymnal an inferior alteration. But then, you would have to teach the congregation a version of the melody different from what many members have been singing since childhood.
  2. You can say that the denominational hymnal is an improvement over the “primitive” shape-note setting. But then, the shape-note singers will have to discard their harmony parts.
  3. You can identify what is best in each setting, preserve differences that can be preserved, and make pragmatic decisions about how to handle differences that require either-or choices. Neither version is “better” or “more advanced”; they are simply different. This is the route I have taken in preparing The Liturgical Harp, and my setting of NEW BRITAIN makes a perfect demonstration of what this volume has to offer.

Here is my setting of NEW BRITAIN (click to enlarge). New Britain Sample (PDF)


Here are some features to notice:

  1. The main melody (tenor part) is given in the altered version found in current Protestant hymnals, so that congregations can sing it easily.
  2. For the first, second, and fourth phrases, the harmony parts are identical to those in the shape-note collections Christian Harmony and The Sacred Harp.
  3. For the third phrase, the harmony parts have been rewritten to complement the altered main melody, but still in the style of shape-note settings.
  4. The tune is notated at an absolute pitch suitable for congregational singing, in case there is not an experienced singer able to pitch by ear.
  5. The tune is notated in shapes so that it can be sung at any pitch level, when an experienced pitcher is available and instrumental accompaniment is not necessary.
  6. The stanza beginning “When we’ve been there ten thousand years” is provided.

The Liturgical Harp

LiturgicalHarpLogoComing in summer 2013: The Liturgical Harp, a tunebook designed to bring church choirs and shape note singing ensembles together on common ground.

This tunebook will be printed in four-shape notation and will include approximately 50 tunes, mostly in two categories:

  • Tunes found in shape note books such as The Sacred Harp, gently edited to provide the melody and words in a version similar to what is found in current hymnals (but preserving the independent part-writing and harmonic language of the original versions)
  • Tunes that are frequently used in current hymnals, but have not yet been arranged in  dispersed harmony and printed in shape notes

Click “About”  at the top of this page for more details.

This website will serve as an online companion to the printed volume, providing an evolving resource for church musicians wishing to incorporate shape note singing into worship services.