This past weekend, I was feeling low, but, very luckily for me, I had tickets to a Capitol Hill Chorale concert that one of my friends was performing in. The concert was titled “Rivers of Delight” and comprised traditional shape note songs, and more modern songs with a link to the shape note tradition. As you might guess from the image above, shape note takes its name from the way the solfege syllables are marked out with distinct shapes on the musical score, to make it easier to learn and sightread a tune and its harmonies.
Shape note also tends to be sung with a more nasal, piercing tone than, say, classical music or even run of the mill hymns. Here’s one example, “David’s Lamentation” which was sung at the concert, but it’s a different choir below. (The choir does a sing through of just the melody first, the lyrics start at 1:29)
I really liked the insistant timbre of the shape note songs. In concert, hymns are often prettied up, and, for me at least, lose their urgency. I can hear the singer(s) and their skill, but I’ve lost the thread of the petition to God. (And I’ve had trouble finding youtube renditions that were as good as the concert, so I’m eagerly waiting for the Chorale to release their cd in several months).This isn’t the arrangement I heard, but “Hallelujah” below still has something of the same drivenness, and it moves from a very sober beginning “And let this feeble body fail / And let it faint and die” to the rollicking chorus of praise:
I guess what I turned out to really like was the marching beat of the songs (they were hymns to work by) and the sense of directedness. Unlike a soaring aria, these songs had a hint of slogging to them, but, as they trudged, they had their eyes on fixed on the destination, and most of the songs seemed to anticipate homecoming and relief, as “Saints Bound for Heaven” does below:
So, in the middle of feeling restless or dispirited, it was nice to have a reminder that not all kinds of hope feel light or soft. The piercing, determined love expressed in the shape note songs, that anticipated rest but was marching on in the meantime, was exactly what I needed to hear.
Finally, here’s the Capitol Hill Chorale, itself, in a preview video for the concert: