American Songbook at Church of St. John the Divine

The ensemble the Early Music New York had deviated from the choir norm by choosing to focus on early American style music.  According to The New York Times,

In a program called “Christmas Quilt: Colonial Fuguing Tunes, Jigs and Reels,” a nine-voice male choir presented holiday songs from the American singing school and shape-note tradition. Shape notes were a form of notation developed in the early 1800s to teach congregations how to sing together. Fa, sol, la and mi, the four syllables in this system (still in use today), are assigned note-heads of different shapes.

“The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” first published in 1835 by William Walker (a k a Singin’ Billy), was one of the earliest tune books to use the four-shape notation. It became the most popular such manual in the 19th century and was said to have sold 600,000 copies.

The program on Saturday included selections from “Southern Harmony,” like “Joy to the World” and “The Babe of Bethlehem.” The choir sang with buoyant pulse, crisp diction and a polished sound far removed from the ecstatic and raw style typical of shape-note singing.

Early Music New York will be giving another performance next Sunday, December 19th, again at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights.