Album Notes


Southern Harmony

The Gregg Smith Singers
Gregg Smith, conductor

assisted by The Rooke Chapel Choir of Bucknell
The Rooke Chapel Choir is directed by William Payn.

Eleanor Clark
Elisabeth Franklin
Rosalind Rees (1,3)
Eileen Reisner (2)
Christina Taylor

Megan Friar (3)
Barbara Fusco (2)
Angela Madia
Valerie Vollmer

Arthur Krieck
Lorentz Lossius
Drew Michael Martin (3)
Daniel C. Smith (2)

William Briggs
Walter Richardson
Rhys Ritter (2)
Mark Wilson (3)

(1) soloist on Wondrous Love
(2) soloists on Condescension
(3) soloists on Holy Manna


William Duckworth’s Southern Harmony is in a class by itself. While other composers have found rural shaped-note singing a gold mine of source material, Duckworth’s approach is unprecedented. Southern Harmony is a parody in the word’s ancient sense, not a humorous imitation, but a rewriting of borrowed material, hovering between paraphrase, commentary, and new creation. It has the relation to shaped-note hymns that Chopin’s waltzes do to vernacular waltzes, similar in form but different in purpose, structurally expanded and abstracted toward artistic perception. Plus, Southern Harmony is one of the few major choral works by a composer connected with New York’s Downtown scene.

To begin at the beginning: Shaped-note singing is an early 19th century Protestant tradition, still practiced today in the rural South, that migrated to Appalachia with middle-European settlers. The hymns, widely disseminated in collections such as The Sacred Harp, The SocialHarp and Southern Harmony, are printed with square, round, triangular, and diamond-shaped note heads as a pedagogic device, to help congregations learn the tunes. Duckworth, born in North Carolina in 1943, came from shaped-note hymn country. “Until I was five or six years old,” he says, “my family went to a rural Methodist church where they did shaped-note singing. My grandfather was one of the leaders, a big, bullfrog bass.”

Duckworth forgot about the hymns until graduate school at the University of Illinois, where Neely Bruce directed a shaped-note choir. Later commissioned by Bruce, then at Wesleyan University, Duckworth wrote Southern Harmony between September of 1980 and July of 1981, basing it on the 1854 hymn collection of the same name. “Every day, before I started writing, I would put myself in the right frame of mind by singing through (the original) Southern Harmony for at least an hour, soprano, then alto, tenor, bass. In the course of the year I sang through the book several hundred times.” The 20 choral pieces that make up Duckworth’s Southern Harmony were performed individually during the 1980s, but not brought together until February 20, 1992 at Merkin Hall in New York City as part of the Interpretations Series by the Gregg Smith Singers and Bucknell University’s Rooke Chapel Choir.

Dating from 1980-81, the piece occupies a pivotal historical moment, the moment at which minimalism (the repetitive style spearheaded by Steve Reich and Philip Glass) had lost its steam, and at which the succeeding postminimal style (which Duckworth pioneered) hadn’t yet gone public. Minimalist tendencies persist; six of the songs, nos. 1, 3, 5, 10, 13, and 20, contain passages literally repeated. However, while Southern Harmony’s transformative processes take the phase-shifting of Reich’s Piano Phase as their starting point, they renounce minimalism’s obvious surface structures. In these respects the work makes a kind of companion piece to Duckworth’s popular piano cycle The Time Curve Preludes (also on Lovely Music).

Shaped-note hymns are full of contrapuntal tendencies considered awkward by European art-music standards: voice crossings, pungent dissonances, odd phrase lengths, and parallel fifths, octaves, and unisons. Duckworth preserves and exploits these anomalies, driving home their exotic qualities through reiteration and variation. Each song is titled for the original Southern Harmony hymn from which it borrows its musical materials (or, in a few cases, only its text). Some of the movements use only solfege syllables (sol, la, mi, fa) as shaped-note singers often do; others use a hymn text. While the music is easy to enjoy without further background, Duckworth’s transformative techniques are so varied and ingenious as to deserve individual annotation:

1. “Consolation” opens with a chorale of sharp dissonances - clusters and major and minor seconds - within the hymn’s pure minor tonality. The hymn’s repeated second phrase is seven measures long, and seven beats becomes the cyclic structure of the piece’s subsequent phrases, which gradually shift their metrical emphasis upon repetition.

2. The soprano solo in “Wondrous Love” paraphrases the hymn melody, altering its meter and mode and adding a few flourishes. But the text, “And am I born to die?”, is taken from another hymn, “Idumea,” while the middle-section choral harmonies are thickened into quintal chords and diatonic clusters.

3. With its cumulatively swelling form adding higher voices with each section, “Hebrew Children” is a kind of chaconne or passacaglia, expanding the original bass line through repetitions and adding a wealth of pentatonic patterns in the voices above.

4. For “Solemn Thought’s” depressing death-warning:

      Remember sinful youth,

      You who hate the way of truth,

      And in your pleasures boast,

      You must die...

Duckworth pointillistically selects notes from the hymn’s vocal parts, and splits words between different voices syllable by syllable. The basses are omitted.

5. It requires auditory imagination to find the familiar tune of “Rock of Ages” strung out at length among Duckworth’s staccato repeated notes. Listen closely, though, and you’ll find the melody played through once, with some of the notes changed from major to minor mode, and with the triad at “Let me hide myself in thee” transformed into a climax of joyous affirmation.

6. From “Cheerful”’s distinctly uncheerful theme, Duckworth spins a numerical cycle of changing meters. Embedded within the cycle’s repetitions is the hymn in its entirety, bursting out in a series of fearsome outbreaks.

7. “War Department” expands its one-line hymn through an additive rhythmic process, heard most delightfully in bouncy repetitions of the cadential words, so naturally warlike that the hymn-writer should have thought to do it himself. The biting dissonances - tenors singing C when the basses sing B - are from the original hymn.

8. The basis of “Condescension” is a morse-code-like rhythmic chant in solfege syllables which pits four soloists in one rhythm with the rest of the chorus in another, each covering the other’s rests. With this as an ongoing drone, 3-,4-, and 5-beat ostinatos appear, drawn from the hymn melody.

9. For the hymn-singer, “Holy Manna” is nearly recognizable; it takes all of its notes from the hymn (in solfege) except for a typically Duckworthian blues alternation of E-flat and E in the C-major melody. The form is also typical of Duckworth, an inconsistent and seamless subtractive process. The tune recycles unpredictably, with a growing insistence on the final cadence.

10. “Bozrah” opens with the complete hymn in its original form, then breaks into hypnotic repeating cycles, loosely drawn from the hymn’s harmonies, over a drone.

11. “The Mouldering Vine” opens the work’s second half with particular clarity. The opening section puts the first phrase of the hymn melody through a subtractive process similar to that of “Holy Manna,” though with selected notes sustained as momentary drones by certain parts of the choir. The second half turns the process into a canon, first in two parts, then three, then four, until the canon disintegrates through the sustained notes and the final cadential phrase echoes in every bar.

12. Duckworth effects two major transformations on “Mear.” For one, he diffracts the hymn’s major tonality into pervasive, chromatically writhing slides between major and minor. He also borrows his text from the other hymn on the same page, “Prospect of Heaven”:

      The faithless world promiscuous flows,

      Enrapt in fancy’s vision,

      Allured by sounds, beguiled by show,

      And empty dreams; they scarcely know

      There is a brighter heaven.

Duckworth, however, cuts the last line’s optimistic promise and repeats the penultimate line with its new meaning: “And empty dreams they scarcely know.”

13. “Leander,” for female voices alone, uses only the text, not the music, of its eponymous hymn. The lines are repeated in a lovely, hypnotic series of 6-,7-,8-, and 9-beat phrases braided into an interlocking form as intricate as an Appalachian quilt.

14. The text of “Sardina” is a single line from another hymn, “Evening Shade”: “O may we all remember well, the night of death is near.” Duckworth sustains the hymn’s pitches against each other to create mysterious, nocturnal cluster chords, resolving each time into the emptiness of an open fifth.

15. In “Windham,” a dozen textless, five-beat melodic patterns interweave with each other, spreading from the sopranos through the rest of the chorus.

16. “Distress” uses only the text of its hymn. The music is through-composed (without repetition) as a collage, built up of chords from the other songs. The emptiness of the open fifths and fourths, the harshness of the unexpected chromatic turns, perfectly express the poem’s concern for the ephemeral quality of beauty, comfort, and worldly life:

      So fades the lovely, blooming flow’r,

      Frail, smiling solace of an hour,

      So soon our transient comforts fly,

      And pleasure only blooms to die.

17. “Nashville” is for men’s voices alone. The piece traverses eight different rhythmic interpretations (actually, the first two are nearly identical) of the same harmonic sequence, a bluesy jaunt around a D major triad squirming with major/minor shifts. This application of varying metric patterns to repeated pitch sequences, a kind of tonal serialism, is a highly original technique. Duckworth plays so freely with word placement that in the line “Thy precepts guide my doubtful way,” the precepts themselves begin to sound doubtful:

      I love the volume of thy word;

      What light and joy these leaves afford,

      To souls benighted and distrest,

      Thy precepts guide my doubtful way,

      Thy fear forbids my feet to stray,

      Thy promise leads my heart to rest...

18. This setting of only the apocalyptic lines from “The Turtle Dove”:

      ...These are the days that were foretold,

      In ancient times, by prophets old;...

      The latter days on us have come,

      And fugitives are flocking home...

      When sun and moon shall darkened be,

      And flames consume the land and sea,

      When worlds on worlds together blaze,

      We’ll shout, and loud hosannas raise.

is sumptuously restful in its eight-part triadic writing and recurring subdominant cadences, as though the earth’s cataclysms will be just a gentle homecoming for the elect. Duckworth keeps the song’s restfulness unpredictable through unobtrusive metrical irregularities which unfold toward a deliciously slow climax.

19. Similar to “Solemn Thought” in its splitting of words between different voices, “Primrose” weaves selected pitches from the original hymn into a melody broken between different sections of the choir. The melody is repeated three times, using solfege the first and last, the hymn lyric the second.

20. “Social Band” runs entirely in 11-beat phrases. In alternate sections the repetitions are literal, elsewhere the phrases flow so fluidly from one section of the chorus to another as to hide the periodicity. The text is selected from the hymn’s second verse:

      Beware of pleasure’s siren song;

      Alas! it cannot soothe you long;

      It cannot cheer... the dark and silent grave.

      O let your thoughts delight to soar

      Where earth and time shall be no more;

      Soon on the wings of love you’ll fly...

      Explore by faith the heavenly fields

Duckworth’s ultimate aim, he says, was “to maintain the integrity of the hymns,” and it’s difficult to deny that he succeeded. If you like rural hymnody, if you approve of the new spirituality that has swept through new music with the return of tonality, or if you simply enjoy rousing choral music, you may find Southern Harmony one of the most engaging works of the late 20th century.

---Kyle Gann

Kyle Gann is a composer, new-music critic for the Village Voice, and the author of The Music of Conlon Nancarrow.

Produced by Nora Farrell.
Digital editing and mastering by Allan Tucker at Foothill Digital Productions, New York City.
Recorded and mixed by Bob Spangler, Susquehanna Sound/Northumberland, PA.
Recorded February 24-27, 1992 at The Weis Center, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA.
Southern Harmony is published by Monroe Street Music (ASCAP), 666 Fifth Avenue, No. 232, New York, NY  10103.

This recording was funded in part by a grant from the Bucknell University Association for the Arts. Special thanks to Thomas Buckner, Mimi Johnson, and Sarah and Richard Bayles.

Art Direction and Design:  By Design

Copyright © 1994 William Duckworth/Monroe Street Music (ASCAP)
© (P) 1994 Lovely Music, Ltd.

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