Of late my wandering interests have entered the territory of traditional hymnody, sparked by my acquisition of an 1854 copy of William Walker’s Southern Harmony & Musical Companion. This hymnal introduced me to the style of sacred music that is well known in modern times as “Sacred Harp,” after a popular hymnal that has seen continuous use until the present day.
Although I will probably have more to say about such music in subsequent posts, here I shall remark upon the differences between this and modern sacred music.
As a member of the church of Christ, the singing I have grown up with is not as different from the early 19th century hymns, as compared to the music of the denominations. In accordance with Scripture, I believe that Christian hymns are to be sung without instrumental accompaniment, and I have also been raised with a good knowledge of shape notes and four-part harmony. Since the old days Sacred Harp singings have been a cappella (hence the name, “Sacred Harp” representing the voice), and such harks back to the day in which even the denominations sang thus.
But the songs found in the old 19th century hymnals (Southern Harmony, the Sacred Harp, etc.) are of a very singular quality, much different from how we sing today. One major difference is in the harmony. In modern day Christian songbooks, all the harmony is built around the melody, whereas in the past each part often moved independently from the melody, while still maintaining consonance. This is well illustrated by my Southern Harmony songbook, the whole of which is available for viewing online. Also, I would recommend you listen to some recordings of some of these old hymns (Sacred Harp or otherwise) to really get a feel for how these hymns sound.
Another quality that many of these old hymns possess is a folk-like feel. Most of the hymns we sing today are more refined and polished, but the old songs have an entirely different sound to them. Perhaps that’s why they were supplanted in many places, I don’t know. It is clear, however, that few have made it into the current repertoire of most hymnals, and even the few that have (e.g. “Amazing Grace,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Rock of Ages”) have been re-harmonized.
Personally, I’m excited to start learning some of these old songs! While I don’t see many others who would want to learn a whole new style of harmony, maybe I can find enough people who are willing to try something new–or old, in this case.