NOTEworthy: April 19

“Hallelujah” from Heavenly Home

by Shawn Kirchner

Well, it’s finally Easter, y’all!! That means that it’s time for some “Hallelujahs!” This week’s piece, “Hallelujah” by Shawn Kirchner, is a revitalized setting of an old Sacred Harp tune. Sacred Harp is actually the name of a hymnal published in America, 1844, written in shape notes, but it’s style was so idiomatic for that style of music that it was later adopted to describe most shape note revival tunes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Shape note singing was an early form of solfege (Think, “Do, a Deer, a female deer”) which is a method to aid in sight reading music for singers. The graphic below demonstrates the different syllables associated with the pitches, as well as the different notehead shapes associated with them. Personally, I am glad for the evolutions in choral sightreading, mostly because “Fa, a deer” really wouldn’t have the same ring to it…

In his program notes, Kirchner describes his piece:

“Hallelujah,” the final movement of Heavenly Home: Three American Songs, is a six-part a cappella setting of the popular Sacred Harp tune. Extensive composed material is used as interlude and accompaniment throughout, with “hallelujahs” leaping, plunging and circling to the lilting 6/8 rhythms. The austere Sacred Harp harmonization is used with only slight modifications on each refrain, providing homophonic contrast to the mostly polyphonic verses.

Perhaps my favorite part of his description is that he calls the original harmonization of the tune, “austere,” and yet the piece he created from that basis is anything but – it’s like a revival of a revival tune. Also, listen for a quick allusion to Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in the soprano section – trust me, even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll know it when you hear it. I would also recommend listening to the entire set if you have the time. You can find it on YouTube, or on Spotify by searching “Heavenly Home Sante Fe Desert Chorale.”

I will be remiss if I didn’t spend a minute with the text of this piece. The whole piece makes me think of the ideal of detachment in the context of the Christian faith. The first two verses begins with an inherent negative which are immediately followed up with a seemingly unwavering joy. The last verse sums it up beautifully: “Give joy or grief, give ease or pain, take life or friends away, but let me find them all again in that eternal day.” What I love about that line is how it elevates the simple ideal of detachment to something grander – hope. In uncertain times like these, how comforting it is that this out-of-balance world is only our temporary home.

My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.
John 14: 2-4