Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


The Festival of Melody

Portrait engraved on steel by Arthur Rice Portrait engraved on steel by Arthur Rice from a photograph by Sarony' [Public domain]

Will Carleton (1845-1912) was an American poet famed for his portrayals of rural life. I could not resist a beautiful edition of his collection Farm Festivals from 1881 for sale at the Renaissance book shop at the Milwaukee airport. Among the rural occasions this book describes, along with such events as the Town Meeting, Thanksgiving Day, and Evening in a Country Store, is the “Singing School,” by then a very old insti- tution in the northeast United States, as the schools began during the Colonial period. The New England settlers believed in the importance of congregational singing in Christian worship, and the singing schools were founded to train each churchgoer to sing, beginning with the children.

Similar old-fashioned schools survive now mainly in the Sacred Harp, Southern Gospel, and Primitive Baptist traditions, where music is still sung in the old “shape-note” style. Some of these early American tunes are in our hymnal, including “My shepherd will supply my need,” “All hail the power of Je- sus’ Name,” “Take up your cross,” “Awake, awake to love and work,” and “What won- drous love is this.” By the time Carleton wrote his poem, some more Protestant fa- vorites had appeared, which he refers to by tune-name in one stanza.

Several different memorable characters are described at length in this poem. The sing- ing teacher is a tall, lean, grim-looking man who resembles “a tuning fork turned on its end.” One of my favorites is a Mrs. Caro- line Dean:

What a method was yours, of appearing prepared

To make every tune in the hymnal look scared!

Your voice was voluminous, rather than rich,

And not predistinguished for accurate pitch;

But you seemed every word to o’erpoweringly feel,

And humbled and drove away skill with your zeal.

Then there was Nathaniel F. Jennings:

…how sadly you tried,

With your eyes a third closed, and your mouth open wide,

To sport an acceptable voice, like the rest,

And cultivate powers you never possessed!

They were just out of music, it used to be said,

When they drafted the plan of your square, shaggy head.

You fired at each note, as it were, in the dark,

As an amateur rifleman would at a mark,

And short of opinion, till after the shot,

Of whether you’d happen to hit it or not.

Those last lines remind me of a soprano at a former parish who was having trouble hitting the notorious high B-flat in Paul Manz’s “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come,” and politely asked the director “When we get there, is it all right if I just sing as high as I can?”

This reminds us that our collective efforts in volunteer choirs can reach heights that, individually, we could not hope for. The satisfaction comes from getting better and better, and we will not achieve perfection until we join the heavenly choir. We hope that our musical offerings will continue to inspire beyond our individual efforts. As for making the occasional loud and obvious mistake, we must cultivate the virtue of gratitude for the opportunity of providing the other members of the choir with so much entertainment.

Event Calendar

Live Stream - Solemn Mass
Sun Jun 25 @10:15AM - 11:30AM
Vestry Meeting
Sun Jun 25 @11:45AM -
Parish Breakfast
Tue Jun 27 @ 7:00AM - 08:00AM
Mass - St Peter and St Paul
Thu Jun 29 @ 9:00AM - 09:30PM
Bible Study
Thu Jun 29 @ 9:30AM - 11:00AM
Brat Fry @ Miesfeld's
Sat Jul 01 @12:00AM

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