Choir and Community: More Embedded than You Think!

I’ve been thinking about the idea of choir and community. Yes, it’s easy to see how a choir is part of a community in the context of, say, Gareth Malone’s Military Wives,  a town philharmonic or a big quality outfit like the Bearsden Choir, which attracts singers from the greater Glasgow area despite having originated as a local endeavour.

However, I’m thinking on a smaller, suburban level.  Is our church choir a part of the community?  I think you can say it is. Even if the choir itself doesn’t actively go out into the community, it leads worship every Sunday, rehearses every Thursday, and its members represent the church as they move around the community engaging in other activities.  My choir members reach into the bowling club, the church mother and toddlers group, the Guild, baking and serving in the church cafe (a much-needed facility, since up until the new extension was opened, Killermont had no cafe where people could meet), the school … and the list goes on.  They talk about these activities over coffee during choir practice, and doubtless talk about the choir when they’re elswehere.  As friends living in a community, they look out for one another, and know when someone needs a bit more support.  We’ve got sisters, old school friends, colleagues, and memories of others who are no longer with us – literally, or because of other demands on their time.

Since I don’t live in the neighbourhood, I’m not part of the community in quite the same way, but I have my own role as organist and choir director, and I do get to hear what’s going on!  In a way, the choir for me is like extended family, since my husband and I and the kids have no other family up here.

Research Discovery is so Sweet!

I’ve sourced a letter between two of my eighteenth century Scottish song collectors!  Indeed, I’ve unearthed a nice little network of relationships here.

Revd Doctor Walter Young of Erskine, renowned for his musical talent, wrote the basses for Patrick Macdonald’s Highland Vocal Airs.  He also wrote the Preface.  And lest anyone should suggest he didn’t, let me state here categorically – he wrote the Preface.  I have the evidence in front of me: “… that prodigy of musical knowledge Dr Young – together with a scientific & explanatory preface to them by him”.

Patrick Macdonald was friendly with Marianne Maclean-Clephane, the mother of Margaret, Anna-Jane and Wilmina.

I now discover that one of Walter Young’s sisters was governess and music teacher to Margaret and Anna-Jane Maclean-Clephane when they were aged nine and six respectively.  I don’t know which of Walter’s sisters it was, nor how long she stayed, but it’s nice to see the relationships criss-crossing like this.

I’ve also found out a bit more about Macdonald’s own music-making, and an interesting snippet about Mull’s “last native harper”.  If this is too tantalising to bear, then I apologise – but I want to see if I can tease any more threads out before I write about it at length!

News! News! News!

Rather flattering to find my thesis cited on someone’s blog!

Two Teens in the Time of Austen

Two *new* portraits join my little gallery… They were found while looking for something totally different (isn’t that always the case?!).

My first was this delightful portrait of Wilmina Maclean Clephane:

I was looking to update information on my current writing project, about Fanny( Smith) Seymour, and wanted to double check information about Torloisk (on the Isle of Mull, Scotland). This was the home of the three Maclean Clephane sisters. Don’t remember them?? I can’t blame you — there are so many names and people to remember, aren’t there?

The Clephane sisters were wards of writer Walter Scott; Margaret Douglas Maclean Clephane married Spencer, Lord Compton in 1815 — and Emma recorded the events of Margaret’s homecoming (see my article at the JASNA website equating this event to a proposed welcome for Elizabeth Bennet Darcy). Spencer and his sister Lady Elizabeth Compton were the…

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You know Macpherson’s Rant (aka Macpherson’s Lament)?

In a recent comment to my ‘Practising What I Preach‘ blogpost, Calum alluded to the  Waterson’s style of harmonising traditional tunes:-

“I’ve always thought one of the best approaches to harmonising traditional song (tunes) is that of the Watersons: lots of octave unisons, parallel motion, and general whooping. A million miles from SATB but for me a very powerful approach.”

A quick search found me a 1965 recording of the Waterson family performing “Thirty foot trailer”, by Ewan MacColl.  Sure enough, their close harmony was exactly as Calum described, with cadences generally harmonised, but a fair bit of unison singing, too.  The guitar harmonies are very static in this song, so it couldn’t be further removed from the “harmonise every chord” homophony of the Macpherson’s Rant setting that had caused me so much pain on Thursday evening!

This morning, our minister introduced the hymn by reassuring the congregation that they’d probably heard the tune ‘Macpherson’s Rant’ performed by The Corries, a folk duo.  I found a fairly recent recording on YouTube this afternoon, but I doubt it would have helped much – the tune has been pulled about a fair bit.  The harmonic pace was even simpler than mine – a chord to a bar – and singing was either solo or unison.

Actually, I think my organ arrangement worked pretty well.  Sometimes we do use a band in worship, but they have a piano, bass guitar, one or more melody instruments, percussion and amplification.  A whole church congregation wouldn’t be particularly well-supported by a single acoustic guitar, as performed by these two historic ensembles.  Times change!  Similarly, if I had tried a Watersons-style harmonisation, the choir wouldn’t have been powerful enough to support a whole congregation singing the tune, and whereas guitar strumming effectively marks the beats in the bar for a small ensemble, you cannae strum an organ! So – I stand by my choice of unison singing, and a harmonic pace halfway between SATB chorale and the chord-a-bar folk idiom.

I may have another arrangement to do this week – pending confirmation – but this one might just be an organ arrangement rather than a vocal accompaniment.  We’ll see!

Practising What I Preach (Reflectively)

There’s not much point in encouraging our students to complete their reflective diaries if I don’t reflect upon my own practice.  Indeed the main purpose of this blog is to provide myself with a place where I can reflect on the various creative activities that I pursue.

Tonight, I’m reflecting on my musical arrangements.  I generally arrange small-scale pieces, often traditional tunes, for small instrumental or vocal ensembles, and last night I decided it was time to do another.  I had been teaching a new hymn to the choir, when I began to realise that the perfectly competent setting of a modernised psalm text to a traditional tune was really rather incongruous.  The lyrics were fine; archaicisms had been removed, so “Thou” becomes “You”, and “Thine” becomes “Yours”, but not much else had changed.  However, the setting of ‘Macpherson’s Rant’ (aka ‘Macpherson’s Lament’) in four-part harmony – four chords to a bar – really irritated me.  Yes, of course this is my personal preference – I don’t claim that my opinions bear any more weight than the next person’s, and I’m not saying there’s anything at all harmonically wrong with the setting in the hymn book.  (Hear it HERE.)

How would this song originally have been sung?  Well, ‘originally’ is conceptually a bit of a problem, because you first have to decide when the ‘original’ era actually was!  In this case it was clearly during the eighteenth century.*  So let’s assume that it was originally SUNG, maybe with a fiddle and/or a cello.  To put it in historical context, whoever wrote the tune more than likely wrote it during or shortly after Johann Sebastian Bach’s era, but the performance context could not be further removed from an SATB chorale setting in a Lutheran church, for ‘Macpherson’s Rant’ was just a song about a fiddler who had got on the wrong side of the law – and smashed his fiddle before he was hung, rather than leave it for a lesser musician to play!

Because folk tunes are so singable, they’re tempting fare for hymn-writers.  (Indeed, 1844, Reverend Roland Hill passed the comment, “The Devil should not have all the best tunes.”  This observation has since been attributed to several different authorities, but that’s irrelevant here.**)  Now, there is no right or wrong answer to the question of how to set a trad tune.  Whatever the lyrics, many people believe that traditional tunes should have straightforward harmonic settings, but as many more feel that they should just be set in appropriate contemporary style.  This is how it came about that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Gaelic festival known as The Mod produced books of Gaelic songs in SATB settings suitable for choral singing.  Hymns at the time were set in homophonic (chordal) SATB idiom, and the rather old-fashioned Highlanders adopted a similar style for their Gaelic tunes.

What annoyed me was that, in 2005, here was the same decorated homophonic style being perpetuated, forcing a  rather lovely traditional tune into a four-square SATB straitjacket. To me, the fast-moving chords detracted from a tune that was elegant in its simplicity.  Joseph Ritson, way, way back in the late eighteenth century, wrote a rather poetic metaphor about traditional tunes, in which he likened folk tunes to a simple country lass, whilst he likened art tunes to a primped and corseted fine London gentlewoman.  It’s too much of a generalisation, and too simplistic by far, but – had things changed so little?

At the same time, I hasten to add that I fully realise we can’t have a twenty-first century congregation lustily singing a psalm to the accompaniment of a fiddle and cello!  Nonetheless, I immediately came home from choir practice and booted up Finale Songwriter to devise an arrangement suitable for congregation and organ without requiring the choir to sing the whole thing in fast-moving chordal harmony.

What I ended up with was a setting for unison voices, with the organ chords moving two to a bar rather than four.  I used fairly conventional twentieth century harmony with the odd seventh, but nothing very innovative, and I tried to make the bassline fairly decisive – it lent itself to stepwise downward movement in the verse, and bigger intervals with some cycles of fifths (V7-I) in the chorus.

Controversially, I’ve added a couple of organ bars at the end so that the tune can end on the tonic chord.  This is absolutely not how it would have been intended originally, and Scottish music enthusiasts will confirm that it’s not unusual to end “in a different key” or with the tune on something other than the tonic note.  However, my twist rounds it off into a conventional V-I cadence, because church congregations tend to feel slightly adrift if a tune doesn’t seem to “end right”!  Listen to a midi file of my version HERE.

Because this is a reflective posting, I can’t rule out that I might not make further changes to my setting at a later date…

* Here’s some information about ‘Macpherson’s Rant’, on Susannes Folksong-Notizen

** And here’s the story of Reverend Hill’s outburst