Editor’s Note: On the first Sunday in June and the Saturday before, Germany joined the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Poland as the fourth European country to hold an annual Sacred Harp convention. Sacred Harp singings have been held in Germany since late 2010, and were bolstered by a pair of all-day singing schools held in the fall of 2011. Since that time, singing communities have formed in Berlin, Bremen, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. The success of the first German convention speaks to the love these new German singers have for Sacred Harp music, the bonds they’ve formed with singers across Europe and North America in the past few years, and the hard work they’ve put into strengthening Sacred Harp singing in their communities. Massachusetts Sacred Harp singer Álvaro Witt Duarte’s account paints a picture of this seminal event for those who did not have the opportunity to attend.
The first German Sacred Harp Convention was an unforgettable experience. The number of countries represented and the amount of energetic singing made the experience truly special. Held May 31 to June 1, 2014, the convention drew together singers from the several regions of Germany where Sacred Harp singings have been established in the last few years, along with visitors from around Europe and across the Atlantic.
I arrived in Hamburg, Germany, on Wednesday, May 28, and made my way to the home of singer Philip Jacobs. The German singers had arranged for nearly everybody who did not live in the vicinity of Hamburg to stay with a local singer, a sign of the singers’ hospitality and of the effort they had put into planning for the convention.
Thursday was Ascension Day. Yotin Tiewtrakul, a Hamburg singer and also the choir director at the Anglican Church of St. Thomas Becket in Hamburg, arranged for some Sacred Harp songs, and a few new compositions, to be presented at a morning service. A group of a dozen mostly German singers gathered at 9:30 am. Seated in a hollow square formed at the middle of the church, we sang six songs sprinkled throughout the service. It was a remarkable opportunity to sing songs from a largely Baptist and Methodist tradition in the southern United States in a German Anglican church service. I enjoyed singing the songs, but it was particularly moving to see high church and low church joining in one accord.
By Thursday afternoon, singers from all over Europe and the United States were beginning to arrive in Hamburg. The singers’ exhaustion—and excitement to be together—was evident. In the evening, singers congregated at an atelier on Chemnitzstraße for an informal and energetic singing. The atelier, or artist’s studio, was owned by a friend of Hamburg singer Philip Jacobs. The acoustics there really allowed one to focus on the sound quality of the singing. Singers’ loud and enthusiastic voices attracted the attention of more than a few passers-by. They stood afar, and a couple of times a local singer went to speak to them about what they were hearing. The singing lasted until about ten. After the singing, some went out, and others traveled to their Hamburg “homes.” I found it striking that even the singers who went to bed because they were tired from a long day travel, had still had energy to sing! Only in Sacred Harp!
Friday was filled with touring and singing in unexpected places. In the morning, en route to the famous St. Michaelis Lutheran Church, a group of us decided to go visit the nearby Georg Phillip Telemann House Museum, the one-room former home of an important German baroque composer. Naturally, we sang a few songs. The docent heard us then proceeded to uncover a spinet on display and allowed us to play it. Michael Walker and Calum Woods played variations of songs in The Sacred Harp, including spirited renditions of “Beach Spring” (p. 81t) and “Mear” (p. 49b).
Next, we went into the St. Michaelis Church. One of the five main Lutheran churches in Hamburg, St. Michaelis was founded in 1669. The present structure, built in 1786, is renowned for its 433-foot copper Baroque spire, visible from across the city. Somehow the docents there caught wind that there was a group of singers in the church and asked us to sing. We began with two songs, and then a request came for two more—we sang “Ninety-Third” (p. 31t), “New Britain” (p. 45t), “Idumea” (p. 47b), and “Old Hundred” (p. 49t). This was surely the first time that Sacred Harp ever rang out in the nearly 350-year-old church. The first couple of songs were quiet. By the third we had begun to sing with fuller voices that echoed through the sanctuary. The sound captivated tourists and visitors. They sat and listened while we sang. What an opportunity! As if singing in a famous church were not enough, some of us then went to the St. Petri Church, founded back in 1189, climbed over 500 steps to the steeple, then sang “The Solid Rock” from The Christian Harmony. We could hardly fit into the tiny space at the top. The view, however, was amazing. We were out-of-breath and sweaty from the climb, but we forgot about that the moment we caught sight of the view overlooking Hamburg. Truly great!
That night, Michael Walker held a Christian Harmony singing school at the Ökumenisches Forum Hafencity, the some location where the convention would take place. As it was the common language for most, the singing school was held in English, rather than German, although occasionally Michael would say a word or two in German to better convey a point. Michael introduced the book, its history, its notation system, and its musical characteristics. He did a great job of presenting the book and letting its songs introduce themselves. This was a success.
On Saturday morning, the convention itself began at 10:30. Chairman Harald Grundner, of Bremen, gave some introductory remarks, and led “St. Thomas” (p. 34b) as a first song. Zack Lindahl, a Swedish Lutheran pastor, who served as the chaplain, then gave the opening prayer. The class was energetic from the start, buoyed by large tenor and alto sections. There were no “morning songs”: leaders dove right into the book, leading challenging and energetic songs including “Consecration” (p. 448t), “Wood Street” (p. 504), and “Sing to Me of Heaven” (p. 312t). The first few hours of a brand new convention might seem overwhelming to the host community, but the German organizers handled this pressure very well.
A wonderful thing about this convention was the diversity of singers. Aside from Germans, there were singers in attendance from England, Ireland, Poland, Sweden, and the United States. I was particularly impressed with how much the Polish leaders have learned in the few years that they have been singing—they bring a stable and calming presence in the square and command the class while leading challenging tunes like “Morning Prayer” (p. 411) and “Newburgh” (p. 182).
Three songs from the first Germany Sacred Harp Convention
As for the dinner-on-the-grounds, I must say that I have never had such a delicious lunch outside of the South. From croquettes to noodles, from salads to quiches, and from potato dishes to meat dishes, Saturday’s lunch was incredible. After this feast, there was an energetic after-lunch session of singing. The final session of the day lasted until five in the afternoon! (Thankfully we were granted a break.) The later-than-usual finish made Saturday a singing marathon.
The social was held in the same location as the Thursday afternoon singing on Chemnitzstraße. When I arrived, a good number of singers were already congregated in the middle of the studio singing from The Christian Harmony. Their enthusiasm made it clear just how much they enjoyed this book! When they were finished singing, we watched a documentary made mainly by the Bremen singers that explained the history of and motivations for Sacred Harp singing in Germany. Oh yes, I can’t forget to mention the fire-twirling juggler. This was not part of the scheduled events. One of the singers just happened to be an “I-play-with-fire-professionally” person, and he began doing a routine outside. Needless to say, it was an entertaining social.
The singing resumed on Sunday morning at 10:30. It started out a bit sluggish, but we quickly came together as one class. The second session of the day started at 11:50, and went right up to the memorial lesson. Michael Walker spoke for the sick and shut-ins. He reflected on meditation, breathing in suffering, and breathing out loving-kindness. After reading the names, we sang “Dura” (p. 531). Sixteen-year-old Calum Woods spoke for the deceased. He gave a personal testimony of how much Sacred Harp has changed his life since he started singing about a year ago. As a musician and composer, he spoke about not having the will to write or compose; of an illness that kept him from making music. He concluded by saying that music helped more than medication, that all troubles and worries were lifted, that he found solace in the words, and that this music was an expression of faith, bringing him closer to God. He closed the lesson by reading the names and singing “Heavenly Land” (p. 303). The lessons were uniquely moving.
As the end of the convention neared, the arranging committee started pairing leaders by region, country, or continent. After the last leaders were called, Harald Grundner, asked for announcements and then led “Parting Hand” (p. 62) as the closing song. What was already an emotional moment became even more poignant: the class started up strong on the shapes, but when it came time to stand on the first verse, it became clear that many of the singers were too new to know the words. Still, as everyone shook hands and embraced, the sound of humming filled the room. Although not everyone sang the words of “Parting Hand,” the song’s spirit was alive in the room. Everyone left feeling thankful to the German community for hosting this exceptional convention. I expect it only to grow and thrive in the coming years.