Victoria Sacred Harp
- meets on the first and third Saturdays of every month (10:00 AM–noon) at St. Philip Anglican Church in Oak Bay to sing the early American sacred choral music known as Sacred Harp. There is no charge and no obligation. Attend regularly or occasionally–it’s your choice!
- welcomes all singers and would-be singers to join in musical fellowship, creating six-part a cappella harmonies from the shape-note tune book, The Sacred Harp. These “singings” are participatory and non-performance-oriented; there is no director and no audience.
- includes people of all philosophies and religious beliefs who appreciate the unique harmonies, powerful lyrics, and rich heritage of this 18th-century musical tradition that is rapidly developing a global following.
What is Sacred Harp singing?
Vancouver Island singers of all musical backgrounds and abilities can now join the thousands around the world who have embraced the early American tradition of Sacred Harp. At informal gatherings called “singings,” people of all faiths and philosophies come together for the joy of creating the distinctive and haunting a cappella harmonies of Sacred Harp. Seated facing each other in a traditional formation called the Hollow Square, the singers take turns calling (choosing) a song and standing in the centre to lead (beat time); Sacred Harp is a communal singing experience. For some, this 18th-century sacred choral music is an expression of their faith; for others, it is an opportunity to broaden their musical horizons and find community.
The term “Sacred Harp” is believed to refer to the human voice; it is also the name of the book of more than 500 hymns, anthems, and fuguing tunes used by the singers since 1844. In the 21st century, the ability to sight read is an asset but not a requirement; in fact, singing Sacred Harp is guaranteed to improve your sight reading skills. Online help for aural learners is available from Sacred Harp Bremen, a German website used by singers around the world; robotic voices sing all the parts to all the songs in The Sacred Harp.
Sacred Harp is a variant of the shape-note singing that was introduced to improve musical literacy in 18th-century English parish churches. Itinerant singing masters taught entire communities to sing in three-part harmony using this simplified music notation. English settlers brought shape-note hymnals to Colonial New England, laying the foundation for Sacred Harp. The poetic lyrics of these early hymns were inspired by Biblical verses, and the melodies, always sung a cappella, were often based on much older folk songs. The modal tunings, open harmonies, parallel fifths, and counterpoint of 18th-century British popular music contribute to the distinctive sound of Sacred Harp. The grim expectation of death and loss that permeates the lyrics is tempered by the anticipation of joy in the afterlife and calls to worship God with voices raised in song.
Today, Sacred Harp music is written in four parts–Treble, Alto, Tenor, and Bass–with male and female voices singing an octave apart in the Treble and Tenor sections, resulting in six-part harmony. To accommodate the dispersed harmonies and independence of the four parts, each part is written on a separate staff. The melody is carried by the Tenor section and appears on the third staff. The use of shaped notes (fa=triangle, sol=oval, la=square, mi=diamond) helps singers to recognize intervals and improve their sight-reading skills.
American Roots Music
During the decades of great religious revivals from the 1790s to the 1830s, Sacred Harp acquired its name and its authentically American character. A new generation of American composers produced their own tunebooks. Modern historians believe that the use of refrains and choruses in Sacred Harp hymns may reflect the influence of slave songs and the mixing of Black and White congregants and worshipers in New England churches and at camp meetings during this formative period. Celtic traces, such as droning tones reminiscent of bagpipes, were left by the Scotch-Irish settlers (descendants of Ulster Protestants) who carried the tunebooks to what is now Appalachia.
In the 1830s, Sacred Harp singing was banished from New England by the Better Music Movement. The open harmonies, emotional full-throated singing, and vigorous rhythms of Sacred Harp had come to be considered old-fashioned, rustic, and unseemly by the urban churches that were adopting the more “refined” sound of European classical music. After the Civil War, Sacred Harp singing faded away except in the rural southeastern states, where it was embraced and preserved for 150 years by a poor White population eking out a hardscrabble existence, far from the new organs and trained choirs of the urban churches.
For generations, the same rural southern families sang Sacred Harp at camp meetings, singing schools, outdoor baptisms, and all-day singings with the traditional “dinner on the grounds”; Sacred Harp was central to their religious, family, and community life. Beginning in the 1930s, this authentic American “roots music” was discovered by musicologists, folklorists, and folk singers. In the 1970s and 80s, it was carried to northern cities, especially to college towns, by a generation of young singing teachers from the old Sacred Harp families. But by the 1990s, with the intrusion of popular music and commercialized recreations into the rural south, young people were turning away from the music that had sustained their grandparents. Singings were sparsely attended and the survival of Sacred Harp seemed in doubt.
A Global Renaissance
Sacred Harp is experiencing a 21st-century renaissance, largely thanks to the Internet, social media, and the 2003 blockbuster film, Cold Mountain, set during the American Civil War, which exposed millions of moviegoers to Sacred Harp harmonies. The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association, based in Alabama, provides teachers and institutional support to new singers around the world. Emigrants from the American south have established Sacred Harp singings all over the United States, as well as in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, and Poland. Sacred Harp singers are linked by regional, national, and international networks that host all-day singings with dinner on the grounds. Modern singers respect the conventions of Sacred Harp while documenting their activities on Facebook and YouTube. Young urbanites are especially attracted by the combination of tradition, community, inclusiveness, and lack of commercialism offered by Sacred Harp. Above all, people are drawn by the harmonies. Today singings are held in churches, cafés, community centres, and private homes.
“We have an American music that …. [is] the match of any polyphonic music in the world, that’s what Sacred Harp is for American culture, and I think that someday, not too far, we’ll have thousands of Americans singing it, hundreds of thousands.” (Alan Lomax, American ethnomusicologist and folklorist, 1982)
“Today, as Lomax predicted, Sacred Harp is sung across the United States. Yet the tradition’s widening beyond US borders has exceeded the most imaginative predictions of the 1970s and 1980s. Sacred Harp singing has made its way to nineteen countries around the world … The majority of this dispersion has occurred within the past seven years.” (Ellen Lueck, American ethnomusicologist, 2014)
View highlights from one of the largest annual gatherings of Sacred Harp singers in the United States—the Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention, shown here in 2014.
Sacred Harp on Vancouver Island
Victoria Sacred Harp was launched in 2013 by two newcomers to Vancouver Island who missed the Sacred Harp singings they had attended in Texas and New Mexico. After recruiting a few friends, they gathered for several years in a private home. Victoria Sacred Harp now meets in a beautiful setting—with lots of room for the Hollow Square to grow—generously provided by St. Philip Anglican Church, 2928 Eastdowne Road, Victoria, V8R 5R8 (just off Cadboro Bay Road, one block from #11 bus). Sacred Harp singers in Victoria are also linked to singers in Vancouver, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska through the Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Singers.
Singers at all levels of experience and visitors of all ages are always welcome at Victoria Sacred Harp’s bi-monthly singings held on the first and third Saturdays of every month, 10:00 AM to noon. (See the Upcoming events page for occasional changes to this schedule.) There is no charge and no obligation. Victoria Sacred Harp uses the 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp (the Denson book). Loaner copies are available for new singers and visitors.
Out of respect for members with sensitivities to scents and electromagnetic fields, please avoid wearing perfumed products and power down cell phones or leave them in your car. Thank you! We hope you will join us in the Hollow Square formation.
For more information, please contact Victoria Sacred Harp using the form below.