‘Come, All My Dear Brethren, and Help Me to Sing’: Dialogue and Participation as Foundations for the Choral Performance of Sacred Harp Music
Conley-Holcom, Leann Marie
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Mounting interest in folk and world music has led to increased choral performance of Sacred Harp, or shape note, repertoire. Sacred Harp is a communal musical practice that originated in the singing schools of colonial New England and is active today, with hundreds of singing chapters across the United States and several burgeoning international chapters. Participants do not rehearse or perform, and there is no conductor. Community and collective musicmaking are the sole purposes of Sacred Harp singing. Lack of awareness in the choral community regarding Sacred Harp and its widespread accessibility for participatory learning has perpetuated a theoretical, distanced choral approach to Sacred Harp. Most choral conductors interpret this music abstractly, even when authentic performances are desired. Choral scholarship on Sacred Harp music is sparse, and largely emphasizes the reproduction of Sacred Harp musical style rather than culturally sensitive representation of a living community. The absence of meaningful discussion in the choral community regarding the ritual and cultural aspects of Sacred Harp leads to performances that oftentimes merely imitate or entertain, failing to draw public attention to the active Sacred Harp community. This study presents a new perspective for the choral performance of Sacred Harp that places participation at the foreground and advocates for greater dialogue between the choral and Sacred Harp communities as a basis for all choral interpretations. The current state, collective identity and values of the Sacred Harp community are examined, with respect for its rich ongoing legacy highlighted. The privileges and responsibilities placed upon choral conductors in their selection of repertoire are discussed and parallels drawn to other frequently-performed participatory choral music. Finally, detailed recommendations for choral performance of Sacred Harp music are offered.
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