Monday, March 9, 2015

Shape-note Singing

Valley Tradition: Shape-Note Singing

            In a recent Monday Lyceum lecture on music tradition in the Valley, the subject of shape note singing was mentioned.  The audience, many of whom are transplants to our area, was unfamiliar with this type of singing which is an important part of Valley traditions.  The following briefly describes shape-note singing and its association with the area.
            The illustration below shows the shapes and syllables with which the notes of a C major scale are sung. 

            A system similar to scheme dates back to the 11th century Italian monk, Guido d’Arezzo.  Over time, many reiterations of the notations, particularly the seven-syllable system, were developed but the image shown above is still the basic and most familiar one. The system facilitated sight reading of music, which given the illiteracy of then and many centuries to follow, allowed for a robust participatory religious musical experience.  English and German colonist in the 17th century carried a singing tradition to America, particularly in New England and Pennsylvania.
            The Shenandoah area was settled by Brethren, Mennonites, Methodists, and Lutherans each of whom have music central to their worship experience.  Dr. John Wayland reported in 1912: “Most of the people of the county are church-goers, and nearly every member of the congregation sings.  Singing is a common pastime in many homes, and singing classes are frequently conducted in churches as a well as in the schools.  All-day singings at churches are not uncommon.” [HofRC p.339]  The person most people associate with this tradition in the Valley is Joseph Funk who was originally from Pennsylvania.  In 1832, he published A Compilation of Genuine Church Music (later changed in 1851 to Harmonia Sacra), which is a shape-note Mennonite hymn book and tune book and was used in singing schools including Funk’s own at Singer’s Glen.  Over the years, many editions incorporated different shape-note systems. The book in the current 26th edition provides tunes in both four and seven shape-notes.      
            Other people contributed to the local musical heritage – many of whom were related to Joseph Funk.  His son, Timothy, taught music classes throughout the Valley.  A.S. Keiffer, a grandson, and J.H. Kieffer, a great grandson, established a well known publishing house, Ruebush-Kieffer Company in Dayton that published many music books.  Brothers A.J. and J.H. Showalter, the former head of a music publishing company and the later writer of songs and compiler of music books, were the grandsons of Joseph Funk’s sister Elizabeth. 
From Jean Schaeffer's Raised on Songs and Stories.
            After the Civil War shape-note singing was mostly found in the south.  Today, local “Hamonia Sacra Singers” activities can be found on Facebook.  Sam Showalter organizes ten annual singings (held on the first Sunday of the month) in the Valley – some of them all day events.  Since 1902 the Weavers Mennonite Church has held singing on January 1.  
By Diane Rafuse