Monday, April 26, 2010

An update

I've updated What different about this song? the answer with a a simple mp3 file of the tune if you want to hear what it sounds like.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Amazing Grace" through the years

This post started out as just a little something about "Amazing Grace." Some time later, I have realized that there is more history to this song than I am able (or really care) to write about and which can easily be found elsewhere. But I do want to say a little something about it which may be of interest to those who are familiar only with modern versions of this song. If the reader cares to investigate any further, I'm sure you know how to use Google.

To begin with, there is a very good article on Wikipedia about this hymn which appears to be thoroughly researched and referenced. Especially interesting is the media clip of an old version of the song being "lined out," that is, the group would pause to allow the leader to sing a verse or so ahead to remind the group of the words coming up: an essential technique in an age when many groups wouldn't have the resources to purchase hardcopies of numerous hymnals--if any were even available. Also of interest there is the graphic of an 1847 shape-note version when only four shapes were used (Fa, So, La and Ti--the older solfege system) in three-part harmony. The article also includes all six stanzas of John Newton's original poem.

Click on all graphics to enlarge.

The oldest version of the song that I have in my collection is shown above, from the 1897 book Songs for Young People. This version, unlike the most common known to many of us, is not set to the "New Britain" tune but to original music by F.S. Shepard, who used stanzas 1, 2, 3 and 5 of the original poem and added his own chorus, writing the song in 4/4 time (the "New Britain" version is in 3/4).

The next version, above, is the standard "New Britain" tune with harmony arranged by E.O. Excell, who used stanzas 1, 2, and 3 of the original poem with the final verse that is now considered the traditional final verse but is not original. It was actually written by Harriet Beecher Stowe for her book Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). This version is from the 1917 hymnal Treasury of Song.

The third version, from Gospel Melodies of 1928, is the E.O. Excell arrangement once again, except in a more easily readable version and with an "amen" cadence added to the end.

Next we jump up to 1961 with a version from Songs of the Church. This is also obviously the E.O. Excell arrangement, and is the longest version I've seen, with six stanzas. Stanzas 1 through 5 are from the original poem, with the final stanza being Stowe's "ten thousand years" instead of the original. We also now see it for the first time (as far as my own collection goes) written in the familiar 7-shape system commonly used by the Church of Christ. The final "amen" cadence has also been dropped since it is not generally the custom of congregations of the Church of Christ to sing an amen at the end of a hymn--the "amen" traditionally being reserved for prayers only. Personally I don't see any scriptural problem with singing an affirmative "amen" at the end of a song, but that's just me.

The version above is from The Mennonite Hymnal of 1969. The harmonic arrangement, according to the details you can see just above the staff on the top right, is from a collection much older than E.O. Excell but is similar to his harmony. This version uses only the first four stanzas of the original poem. According to the introduction to this book, the Mennonites went to great lengths to preserve old hymns such as this in their original state, or as close as they could get to it, so it doesn't surprise me that this version doesn't include Stowe's "ten thousand years."

This version, from Sacred Selections for the Church from 1974, is notable for a new name among the arrangers and a different arrangement, though it doesn't look all that different at first glance. With music by William Walker, it introduces a minor VI chord in the third full measure which adds some nice color in my opinion. Another difference in harmony is the ending chord, in which he uses a full tonic (Do-Mi-So-Do) rather than dropping the So and tripling the Do like Excell did. Either way is perfectly fine, but the full Do-Mi-So adds an extra richness (again, in my opinion). Here we have the first four stanzas of the original poem plus Stowe's now ubiquitous final stanza.

This version is from Songs of the Church of 1977. Although not credited, here we see once again Walker's harmony, though slightly rearranged. This is also the first time in any of my books that we see the four-stanza version most of us are familiar with: the first three stanzas of the original poem plus Stowe's final stanza. The final chord differs in that the alto and tenor parts are switched with each other; consequently the harmony leading up to that chord is also a little different although the same chords are used.

Another variation in harmony can be seen in the above, from Hymns of Praise from 1978. Although we are not told who the arranger is, this style of harmony looks very familiar to me and I would not be surprised if I was told that it was arranged by Holland Boring, Sr. He was one of the compilers of this hymnal and a prolific songwriter himself (and the man who taught me harmony). The third measure, rather than using the tonic chord (Do-Mi-So) of the older versions or Walker's minor (La-Do-Mi) chord, uses a major IV chord. The accidental on the last note of the previous measure causes the progression to "slide" naturally into that IV chord. Another accidental, on the last note of the sixth measure, creates a temporary modulation, or key change, into the following measure. The song then returns to the original key in the measure after that. This is the "short version," using only the first two stanzas of the original poem plus Stowe's final stanza.

This version is from about 1983 in the book Gleam of Glory. I include it here for completeness; it uses the original first three stanzas plus Stowe's final stanza, set to entirely new music by Boring in 4/4 time.

I have several more books with various versions that are identical to various of those above, so I will not bother noting them individually here. However, there is one more version that is the most modern I know of and which I don't particularly care for.

What a mess. This is a perfect example of how to destroy a classic, well-loved hymn. Who is really going to try to sing all that? And what is up with all those descants? And 9/8 time? Really? For nearly 200 years people were happily singing this song, but Alton Howard decided it needed to be "improved" or something. This looks like it was written for a professional choir and not for a congregation who mostly (almost entirely) cannot read music and wouldn't know what to do with this mess anyway. This is why, when I lead this song, I tell everyone to ignore all that stuff and just "sing it the way you remember it." There are also some harmony mistakes in here that I would never have been allowed to get away with when I was being taught, but I'm not going to bother detailing them.

"Amazing Grace" is written in meter. That means 8 syllables in the first verse, 6 in the second, and so on. There are many songs written in this meter, which means the words to any one of them can be sung to the music of another. So if a group wants to sing one of them, say, because it deals more specifically with the sermon of the day, but that group doesn't know the music, they can just sing the new words to the tune of another song that they are familiar with. Although the "New Britian" tune is the most popular for "Amazing Grace," the words have been used with music from other songs. One that I realized myself one day, although I don't know what led to this realization, is that the words to "Amazing Grace" can be sung perfectly well to the music of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Try it sometime.

None of the versions I've recounted above used John Newton's final stanza from his original poem, so I thought a good way to end this post would be to reprint it here.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Majestic Hymnal Number 2

Title: The Majestic Hymnal Number Two
Year Published: 1959
Publisher: Firm Foundation
Editor: Reuel Lemmons
Binding: Hardback
# of Songs: 442
Sect: Church of Christ
Style: Shape note (7-shape system)
Dimensions: 8 1/4 x 5 3/4 x 1

I suppose The Majestic Hymnal is the best place to start with my collection. Published 5 years before I was born, it was the book I grew up with and was widely used by many Churches of Christ at the time. It was used in Floresville, where my parents first took me to church and where I first stood in front of a congregation and began learning song-leading in the "singing class" we always had at 5:30 PM on Sundays, just before the evening service (usually choosing number 131--"Here We Are But Straying Pilgrims"). It was also used by the congregation in Stockdale when we moved there when I was 6 years old. It continued to be used there for several years thereafter. As you can see from the photo, this book's spine was repaired with duct tape. At one point, the books were badly falling apart but the congregation didn't have the funds to buy a bunch of new books, so they were all repaired this way.

The Majestic Hymnal was the standard for songbooks for the Church of Christ for--I'd guess--20 to 30 years. Many might now look back upon it as somewhat archaic--it now looks odd to me for containing only 442 songs, unlike most newer songbooks that include upwards of 900. It includes many songs that are considered old standards, and were even considered such at the time of its publication, but it also includes many songs that were relatively new at the time, having been written within 10 years or so of it's publication.

The songs used in The Majestic Hymnal are songs that were written by songwriters who really knew what they were doing. The long list of compilers who chose songs for this book were almost all songwriters as well, and proof-checked each other for mistakes. These songs were written before the rise of "contemporary Christian" pop music and therefore does not include any pop songs that someone tried to re-arrange as hymns (with inevitably disastrous results). This does set it apart from some newer hymnals which have some bad form and many outright mistakes in the songwriting which make the songs sound weak (or just plain wrong) and also make them difficult to sing. In my opinion, this is the Majestic's great strength and makes it continue to stand as a reference for the way gospel hymns should be written.

It's sad that some newer hymnals have neglected to include many of these old standards, especially since they have been replaced not by modern songs which are equally as well-written and inspirational (of which there are an abundance--but you wouldn't know it by looking at the most modern and widely-used current hymnals), but by pop songs so that people can try to sing what they hear on the radio.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What's different about this song? The answer

click to enlarge

In comments to the previous post I said a hint was which notes you don't see. A quick scan of this piece will reveal that there are no Fas or Tis: no half steps. This is a scale which is used in different variations all over the world for many different kinds of music. However, this is the first time I've ever seen a song in any hymnal that was written in a pentatonic scale.

As I said before, another odd thing about it is that it ends on Re, which leaves a feeling of it being unfinished to western ears (this particular song being based on a Japanese melody). But since that last post, I have come across a few other songs which appear to be in a minor key, beginning on a minor chord (La-Do-Mi) as one would expect, but ending on a chord based on Re (either Re-Fa-La or Re-Fi-La). Such endings are outside my experience and training and I'm still trying to figure out what exactly is supposed to be going on.

UPDATE: Click on Here O Lord to download a simple mp3 version of this song if you want to hear what the tune sounds like.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What this blog is about

I remember learning to read. It began when I was 4 years old and attended a private kindergarten for two years. By the time I was in 1st grade, I was reading way ahead of most other 1st-graders.

I don't remember learning to read music. I'm pretty sure it began about the same time, but I don't really recall the time when I could or could not read music. I grew up in the Church of Christ, and we do not use mechanical instruments. We use only voices, or a capella singing. Such singing brings its own challenges and rewards. One of the great challenges is turning a group of people who are mostly musically illiterate into a group of people who can sing well in spite of that. Some congregations never achieve such singing.

I was lucky. I have been part of three congregations in my life who were blessed with musicians, song leaders and song writers, or who were indirectly but heavily influenced by such skilled and talented people. I was introduced to song leading at that same age of about 4 or 5, when I first stood in front of a congregation at our 5:30 PM Sunday "singing class" and started learning how to do it. My teachers at that time--though I didn't think of them as teachers back then--were Holland Boring, Sr. and his son Don.

As a teenager I began attending a two-week summer church music camp called The Foundation School of Music, which at that time was headed up by Holland Boring, Sr. At that time it was located at Camp Hensel in the Texas hill country near Marble Falls. It has since relocated but is still extant (follow the link for info). By that time I could fluently read music because I had been in school band for a few years and had otherwise been studying some of the music books written by Holland Boring on my own. By my third year there, I was in the advanced harmony class and continued in that class for the following years--I think I went there 7 or 8 years in all. "Singing school," as we all called it, taught us not only how to read and write music but also song leading and singing.

I later attended college for two years at Abilene Christian University before the money ran out. I studied music there as well, taking classes in music theory, sight-reading, and band (alto sax in marching band and baritone sax in jazz band--and also took some piano lessons). I later also took more music classes at SWTSU in San Marcos and participated in the university choir there, although I never graduated.

I am not an expert. I do not write these things to boast, because I have nothing to boast about. I am only an interested amateur with a love for music of all kinds, but if I have any particular area of "expertise," for lack of a better word, it is in the genre of gospel hymns.

This blog will focus on my love and interest in music in general and hymns in particular; on my slowly-growing collection of hymnals and the songs they contain. I have had many people who taught me music, but especially I would like to mention the following people for the training they gave me along the way: Holland Boring, Sr., his sons Holland Jr. and Don, Tom Chapin and Paul Epps.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

What's different about this song?

click to enlarge

Other than that it's written in simple unison with no harmony, and other than that it begins on La and ends on Re. Details pixelized out to conceal any hints.