Review of The Harmonia Sacra, 25th ed.

Bradley Lehman, 1995 for Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Harmonia Sacra: A Compilation of Genuine Church Music. 25th ed. Edited by James Nelson Gingerich. Intercourse PA: Good Books, 1993. $19.95. There is also a separate handbook.

In 1832 Joseph Funk of Virginia first published his English-language collection of Genuine Church Music. The settings were for three vocal parts, organized by poetic meter, and printed using a pedagogical four-shape system. In subsequent revisions Funk and sons eventually changed the number of shapes to seven and the number of voices to four. The 24th edition (1980) converted the format of The Harmonia Sacra to that of a "normal" modern hymnal: a vertical page layout with words between two staves, and two vocal parts per staff. The present 25th edition restores the original singing-school horizontal format, with each musical line on a separate staff. It also includes several anthems dropped previously, and a sampling of three-part pieces from Funk's first two editions.

An obvious feature is the reinstatement of Funk's valuable 46-page essay, "Rudiments and Elucidation of Vocal Music," omitted since the 1878 edition. Funk provides a detailed course in musical notation, poetic feet, conducting, solmization (fasola), rhythm, harmony, the distinctive sound of each major and minor key, and tone production. Above all he urges the singer to expressive clarity through dynamics, diction, and entering the emotion of the poetry.

As a facsimile edition this book is an excellent historical resource, painting a clear portrait of American hymnody. But it is also simply a songbook for hearty use by amateur singers, usually without rehearsal. Why then are the hundreds of misprints in the original plates not yet corrected or pointed out in a critical report (which admittedly would require years of difficult and sometimes subjective work)? Printed errors in worship materials hinder people's ability to worship.

To most people, wrong notes or missing accidentals in a musical line (e.g., the top line of ALDERTON (169), 5th and 18th notes) are generally less obvious than typographical or syntactic errors of language. It is primarily lack of practice: we compose and improvise complete sentences every day, but not musical phrases. Singers therefore tend not to know instantly what to change when something feels wrong. Many songleaders and choir directors also do not feel qualified to handle such a proofreading task, which requires internalization of all four parts and a composer's sympathetic understanding of a piece's intended overall effect. How does one judge responsibly what constitutes another person's apparent mistake, and what is stylistically vital? Such a comprehensive project could be an excellent dissertation in hymnology.

The different musical grammar of these hymns makes them sound fresh, rugged, and often rough-hewn. As the layout suggests, this music is written as melodic parts, not in chords. Each line is an individual composition against the principal melody, here printed as the third line. Try LINGHAM (302), pairing each voice with the melody, and then all four voices together. In this style of hymnody each singer chooses any line which is comfortable, and then focuses on expressing that part, that personalized manifestation of the words. The parts do not necessarily form the identifiable and static chords which a modern congregation might encounter together in an improvised harmonization.

As one might expect, many of these hymns are originally three-voiced pieces with a newly-added fourth part (generally the second line). And sometimes it is obvious that the new part belongs only with the melody, not within the existing harmony. Try ST. OLAVES (89) or the last half of PROTECTION (196) with and without the second line. It is like having a dissenting member in a lively discussion. Some arrangements seem bewildering, even considering melodic linearity: COME YE DISCONSOLATE (228), GOLGOTHA (266), DIVINE ADORATION (377), and the last phrase of VERNON (183). The poignant confluence of all parts creates such seemingly random tension that singers may lose their bearings, and omitting any single part does not solve the "problems." It is no easy task to write hymns whose linearity, harmony, rhythm, and dramatic tension are equally satisfying. But not to worry; most of the hymns here do not sound as unruly or disorienting as these. There is also plenty of good old comfortable robust harmonizing.

Such linear music, often disguised in the format of other hymnals, teaches us an easily neglected truth of hymn singing: there is unity and magic in lively individuality. In a rich texture of sung Christian faith it does not matter how many ad hoc parts result with octave doublings, or whether someone's contribution is blithely off-key by a fourth or fifth. Successful hymn singing is enthusiastic and heartfelt expression of the texts, a firm belief that one's own line is a vital part of a greater (and sometimes unexplainable) harmony. The Harmonia Sacra is a Pandora's Box of treasures: opening it can change the way one experiences hymnody.

This new edition is well-designed to be beautiful, practical, and long-lived. Almost everything about it seems deluxe: the clear crisp print, the durable opaque pages, the solid and attractive red binding. The two disappointing omissions are a topical index (included in the twenty-fourth edition), and the identification of known authors, composers, and dates.

This brings us to the separately available handbook, which James Nelson Gingerich and Matthew Lind have subtitled "a compilation of genuine information: comprising a great variety of tedious and tasteless details...." This informative, easy-to-use staplebound volume reflects the compilers' obvious joy in The Harmonia Sacra's hymns and history. It is apparently a printout of a comprehensive database, formatted attractively. For every hymn and tune the compilers give the expected information where available: names, dates, alternate titles, and sources. Their fresh and careful research supersedes the previous edition's often incorrect information. The DoReMi index allows a reader to locate tunes by humming the syllables. The final pages of the handbook provide extra stanzas to sixteen hymns, a preliminary worklist of errata, and a bibliography. There is no topical index yet, but Gingerich invites readers to send in "any additions or changes, however tedious," for the next edition. My only complaint with the presentation is that at various places in my review copy the print is too light.

The Harmonia Sacra demonstrates much of the rich heritage of Mennonite part-singing, and its handbook enhances the value and usefulness of such an important historical collection. No other hymnal in the English language has had such a long lifespan of constant use in any Christian denomination. This twenty-fifth edition rejuvenates the embodiment of Joseph Funk's love of church music.

Hymns by Bradley Lehman including compositional philosophy