IN: Reviews

Ingalls, Camerata and the American Folk Hymn


Thomas Malone and Joel Cohen agree on the beat.
Thomas Malone and Joel Cohen agree on the beat.

Recipe for success: combine excellent research, a group of spectacular professional musicians, fifes and drums, lusty shape-note singers, and an audience sing along; season with a dash of a one-eyed pirate. Result: Boston Camerata’s delightful concert last Friday evening, “Lovely Vine, Jeremiah Ingalls and the American Folk Hymn,” showcasing works from The Christian Harmony, a book of religious music, collected and composed by 19th-century Vermont tavern keeper, bass viol player and village church choir director, Jeremiah Ingalls. The concert was set in the sonorous and architecturally and chronologically appropriate  Old West Church, on Cambridge Street in Boston, built just one year after the publication of The Christian Harmony.

Boston Camerata is known for its innovative programming supported by extensive academic research. Knowing of the existence of The Christian Harmony in the collections of the Harvard Musical Association, Joel Cohen persuaded the Association that it should commission research leading to a performance of music from the book.

In the program notes for the concert we learned that Jeremiah Ingalls’ The Christian Harmony (1805)is one of many song books published in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. However The Christian Harmony is unique among books of this type because Ingalls wrote not only new music equal to that written by the likes of William Billings, he also collected and wrote down the music that was around him, much of it English in origin, turning folk songs, ballads, tavern songs and fife tunes into religious hymns. The American folk hymn to which Ingalls gave birth was later ousted from New England by the “better music” movement of Boston and New York (notably fostered by HMA member and leader of the Boston Second School, Lowell Mason), and moved south; where it flourished and is still practiced by shape-note singers.

Boston Camerata’s program on Friday evening was presented in six sections, each introduced with a few words from Anne Azéma or Joel Cohen and each running without pause, with perfect pacing and disarming ease, from work to work. The six voices of Boston Camerata were joined by violinist Ben Powell, violone player Andrew Arceci, members of the Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes and Drums and a large group of shape-note singers, Jeremiah’s Golden Harpers. The forces were constantly molded into different combinations which kept the presentation fresh and unpredictable and kept audience member’s ears alert. And the audience was invited not only to stay for a sing along after the concert, led by Thomas Malone, the director of Jeremiah’s Golden Harpers, but also to participate several times during the formal program.

The concept of the program was to pair secular models for Ingalls’ religious music with examples of his work from The Christian Harmony, and it was fascinating. Not only did Ingalls’ adaptations use the melodies of music he heard all around him: in some cases his religious version played on the original’s text and theme, giving extra layers of enjoyment, (in jokes) to the listener and no doubt the performers, whether those in the 18th and 19th centuries, or of today.

The concert began with a Prologue, that ranged from a recording of Pete Seeger, (to whom the concert was dedicated) singing “Sinner Man,” to Donald Wilkinson’s gorgeous performance of “Judicii Signum,” a 10th-century southern European hymn, which was contrasted with Ingalls’ “Northfield,” his most widely published and beloved hymn.

In “Innocent Sounds:” sacred and profane balladry from the British Isles to the Green Mountains and beyond, we were treated to a performance of the oldest ballad in the English language, “The Devil’s Nine Questions,” in which the devil questions a maiden who is to be wed, to check that she is pure and to try one last time to win her to the dark side. Daniel Hershey was a delightfully wicked and devious devil and Camila Parias as the maiden, succeeded not only in defeating the devil, but in winning the audience: she’s a delightful actress and the voice soars beautifully. John Taylor Ward made a suitably grumpy miller in “The Miller of Dee,” and we could understand every word. The religious song “Humility” that Ingalls wrote based on “The Miller of Dee” was sung by the three women’s voices of Boston Camerata, beautifully blended, which lulled us into a false sense of calm. Joel Cohen’s evident sense of theater contrasted that lovely trio with the unexpected and unannounced entrance (from the back of the church) of Members of the Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes & Drums (MCV)! They appeared for the song “Dog and Gun,” the story of an aristocratic young lady who went a-wooing a local farmer with her dog and her gun. She won the heart of the farmer and Deborah Rentz-Moore won our hearts with her characterful telling of the story. Ingalls turned the melody into a religious song titled “God Will Provide:” perhaps a reference that God will provide a mate for anyone who asks?

Anne Azéma shaped  the English ballad tune “Come all ye maidens fair,” the secular model for Ingalls’ “Lovely Vine” hymn, as a poignant meditation on reckless youth and sexual favors too easily granted. This group also included “The Dying Words of Capt. Robert Kidd,” (a noted pirate who was hanged at execution dock, in England). Joel Cohen made a fine figure with neckerchief and eye-patch, singing (and dancing) the dying words of Robert Kidd, supported with fine fiddle playing from Ben Powell and bones played by Andrea Wirth of MCV.

The Christian Harmony is apparently not exclusively filled with religious songs. Ingalls included in the publication some political songs from the Presidential election of 1804. It was very interesting to hear an Election Ode from that year in the context of Jefferson and Liberty a well-known march of the time.

There followed a group of songs illustrating links between Ingalls religious melodies and the hymns of the Shakers. A particularly touching moment in the concert occurred in a song called “Knowledge of Jesus:” the melody was presented by violin and flute, playing in unison. Ben Powell’s violin playing throughout the concert was sensitive and beautiful: the addition of the flute in this piece, played by Sarah MacConduibh had the effect of making the violin sound as though it was muted. The sound was almost unearthly and the easy perfection the two instrumentalists achieved was quite something. As the concert began to reach its conclusion, we were treated to one more gorgeous piece sung by Don Wilkinson: I was touched by his intimate performance, accompanied on the guitar by Joel Cohen, of Ingalls’ “Beggar’s Prayer.”

The complete ensemble.
The complete ensemble.

The only small quibble I had with the performance was that, with no intermission, the concert was a little long. By the time we arrived at “Farewells and Exhortations”  I was dying to stand up and move around: so I wished for fewer farewells and exhortations; particularly as, by their nature, farewells are often much less lively than the shaker songs and tavern ballads that preceded them.

Nonetheless, the subtle but substantial supporting bass line provided on the violone by Andrew Arceci, and the melodic commentaries of Ben Powell’s characterful and engaging violin playing, provided many delights. Perhaps what was most extraordinary, though, was the excellent vocal sextet fielded by Camerata. The singers’ wonderful, apparently so simple, performances engaged each other and the audience because their great art concealed art. These soloists—co-director Azéma, Camila Parias, Deborah Rentz-Moore, Dan Hershey, Taylor Ward (making his U.S. début with Camerata) and Donald Wilkinson—employed their extensive experience with European early music to make perfect, idiomatic sense of Ingall’s sometimes-atavistic writing, with its resonant open fifths, occasional “forbidden” intervals, and piquant, modal/gapped scale melodic language. As a singer myself I must observe that the perfection of intonation and blend, especially in the a cappella singing, was exemplary.

One of my fellow audience members remarked to me, “Their rehearsals must be a great deal of fun.” The concert certainly was.

See related interview here.

Letitia Stevens is a freelance classical singer, choral conductor and voice teacher.

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