Sunday, December 6, 2009

“It Set the Singers in Good Humour”

On Friday and Saturday, CONCORA singers had two wonderful rehearsals in preparation for our upcoming concert, “Christmas in the Americas.” The concert takes place on Sunday, December 13, at 4:00 p.m., at the historic Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford. (Details and ticket information are at the end of this post.)

The program annotations I provide for the printed program book are necessarily short, due to space constraints. When I have time, I like to prepare an expanded “program essay” for the singers that includes a lot of the information that I had to edit out for the short printed notes. Today I'm finishing up that longer essay. Here’s a “long note” for Northfield, an early American “fuguing tune” by Jeremiah Ingalls.

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A lively mood prevails in the energetic, angular contours of Northfield, a “fuguing tune” from the Sacred Harp tradition. A fuguing tune is a strophic (versed) work with at least one section of imitative polyphony. The form is said to have been “invented” by Boston-born William Billings (1746-1800), who promoted an “independent” American musical style. The fuguing tune, which originated in rural England in the early 18th century, came to be among the most “American” of the music composed on these shores during this period. Though the English form died out by the end of the 18th century, the form remained popular in America. Billings delighted in the reaction of singers and audience to this new form: “It has more than twenty times the power of the slow tunes, each part straining for mastery and victory, the audience meanwhile entertained and delighted, the minds surpassingly agitated and extremely fluctuated, sometimes declaring for one part, and sometimes for another. Now the solemn bass demands the attention, next the manly tenor, now the lofty counter [alto], now the volatile treble, now here, now there, now here again.”

An article published in the December 1882 issue of The Atlantic Monthly vividly conveyed the excitement that this lively music had engendered: “Billings invented a new way of setting hymns and anthems, which was called the fuguing style. It became extremely popular because of its vivacity, the voice parts moving in a sort of mutual imitation (not fugue properly), in quick time, chasing one another round. O Mather! O Judge Sewall! The grave old heavy psalmody was startled and danced out of its sobriety. Here was a music that was found exciting; a lively rhythmical protest (for men had been drinking of the new wine of liberty) against the dry and dreary old music; a music flattering to the sense and a relief to the imprisoned spirit. Whether it appealed to any deep religious sentiment or not, it set the singers in good humor, and responsive to the exhortation that we make a joyful noise.”

One of the best-known of the fuguing tunes is Northfield, composed around 1800 by Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1838), sets words by English hymnodist Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Ingalls, born in Andover, Massachusetts, led a busy life as tune book compiler, composer, choir leader, singing school master and bass viol player. His only song book, The Christian Harmony, or Songster’s Companion, was published in 1805. A delightful description of Ingalls may be found in The History of Newbury, Vermont, from the Discovery of the Coös County to the Present Time (St. Johnsbury, VT, 1902).

[Ingalls] was a cooper by trade and a singing master by profession. He was mainly self-taught, but possessed a sweet and powerful tenor voice and great aptness in teaching vocal music, as it was taught in those days. His skill as a composer was in demand to furnish music for public occasions, to which he often added hymns and songs of his own composition. … In 1805 he gathered [his compositions] into a volume of two hundred pages, entitled “The Christian Harmony” … These tunes are of unequalled merit. Some of them were in their time very popular at camp meetings and other religious gatherings. Several of his tunes are still sung, of which “Northfield” is immortal… "

Concerning the production of “Northfield,” the following anecdote is preserved:

Returning from fishing one rainy day, he laid down before the fire to get dry, and impatient at the slow progress of dinner began to sing a parody to a well-known hymn:

How long, my people, Oh! How long
Shall dinner hour delay?
Fly swifter ‘round, ye idle maids,
And bring a dish of tea! [then pronounced ‘tay’—Ed.]

“Why, Jerry,” said his wife, “that’s a grand tune.” “So it is,” replied the man of song; “I’ll write it down.” And dinner waited the completion of “Northfield.”

Here is Northfield as it appeared in Ingalls’ 1805 publication.

Over the next several days, I’ll continue to share snippets of the information I’ve gathered about some of the selections we’ll perform on "Christmas in the Americas." I do hope you can be in the audience to hear this remarkable program. You may view the entire repertoire list at the end of my first post about this concert, here:

Call today to reserve your seats!

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“Christmas in the Americas”
Richard Coffey, conductor
Dan Campolieta (piano, organ, and percussion) and Christen Hernandez (percussion)
Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 4:00 p.m.
Snow Date: Monday, December 14, 7:30 p.m.
Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Avenue, Hartford
Tickets: or call 860-224-7500
Preferred seating: $45; General admission: $25; Students: $10.
2-for-1 general seating tickets are available to those with a Let*s Go Arts!” card from the Greater Hartford Arts Council.

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