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Raising Awareness of Old Traditions with New Music

This Wednesday, the Sphinx Organization (Sphinx Organization - Transforming lives through the power ...)will present a of mine they commissioned entitled Raise Hymn, Praise Shout in Carnegie Hall.  The concert is the culmination of a tour by their premiere performing ensemble, the Sphinx Virtuosi.  Sphinx is devoted to promoting diversity in the arts and the Virtuosi are made up of some of the most talented young musicians who have been supported in one way or another by the organization.  The work was commissioned as a showpiece for their recent a first prize competition winner and current Curtis Institute of Music student, Xavier Foley.  However, my ultimate goal for the piece is to bring awareness to a disappearing church music tradition: lined hymn singing.

Lined hymn singing, or the lining out of hymns, is a centuries old form of congregational singing which originated in Europe, migrated to New World with settlers and flourished when adopted and adapted by African slaves.  This musical tradition has continued in both white and black churches in the U.S. since its arrival but now remains practiced in only a small number of traditional churches, mostly in the south.

I was first introduced to lined hymns in 2007 by my friend and colleague Joseph Conyers (Joseph Conyers - | The Philadelphia Orchestra) whose home church in Savannah still practices hymn-lining in devotional services.  Joseph, who is currently the Assistant Principal Bassist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, credits this musical practice as one of his foremost developmental experiences as a young musician.  When I heard the music I understood why.  I immediately decided to incorporate it into a concerto I was writing for him at the time and the two of us have remained committed to promoting awareness of this tradition though the music we created together.  In fact, the current piece Sphinx is touring is a child of that original work for Joseph and is helping us make good on that commitment.

The essential element of lined hymnody is the leader (sometimes a preacher, sometimes a member of the congregation) who ‘lines out’ the text about to be sung.   Then the leader ‘raises’ then hymn by singing in long slow tones each syllable, allowing time for the congregation to join and improvise in their own manner.   To me, this tradition represents the ultimate expression of congregational singing:  Individual, personal expressions woven into a collective musical experience with single purpose.   Though born in a time where a majority of congregants were illiterate and this kind of leadership was required for congregational singing, the detachment from a book allows a level of communal musical connection that transcends the mere practice of singing hymns.  It is a kind of jubilant group mediation where, instead of everyone sitting in silent practice, everyone is sharing in an emotional, noisy, explosion of sound.  Unfortunately, as congregations have grown more literate in the past century, the necessity of the tradition has diminished and the art form has become endangered.  My hope is that, through my own small musical contributions like the one this Wednesday, I might inspire a few people to keep the tradition alive and explore its power and beauty for themselves.  Who knows? Maybe we'll even line out a hymn at First Church one of these Sundays.

If you are interested in learning more of this fantastic musical tradition, I've linked some videos below.  The first is a short documentary about a man trying to keep it alive.  The second and third are links to videos of two congregations performing lined hymns: one black and one white church.  

Hymn Lining: A Disappearing African American Tradition ...


Thornton Old Regular Baptist Church: I'm Going Home (lining hymn) (...

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