PAM’S NOTES ON THE HYMN TEXT
Who doesn’t love HOLY MANNA? The tune, I mean, not the sustenance God provided the Israelites as they wandered the desert.
Once, it was known almost exclusively as the setting for the text of the 1819 American folk hymn “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship.”
In many modern hymnals however, including the United Methodist, it is the name of the tune to which we sing “GOD, WHO STRETCHED THE SPANGLED HEAVENS.” This hymn text was written in 1967 by Catherine Cameron, a Canadian-American professor of social psychology.
In her poetic verses, Dr. Cameron gave Space Age Christians a nuanced reflection on the space race, while still celebrating God as the creator who “stretched the heavens” and “flung the suns through silent fields of space.”
I was six years old on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit. In rural western NYS, Mom and Dad got my sleepy sisters and me out of bed that night and guided us to the backyard. Shivering together in the crisp fall air, we stared up at the sky. When we finally spotted Sputnik blinking past the stars, Mom cried out in wonder, “Imagine that! Just imagine that!”
Human curiosity and the impulse to explore have sometimes led to wonderful discoveries, but other times to new horrors.
In the third verse of this hymn, we sing of scientists who have “probed the secrets of the atom” with its “unimagined power.” In the hymnodist’s words, this discovery has the human race facing “life’s destruction or our most triumphant hour.”
This hymn is a prayer that, as our means of discovery expand and the human race continues to seek “the ecstasy of winging through untraveled realms of space,” we will be guided by God, turn from the impulse to destroy or exploit, and live as “children of creative purpose.”
DEANNA’S NOTES ON THE HYMN TUNE
The pentatonic tune HOLY MANNA first appeared in the 1829 shape note book, Columbian Harmony. The tune is attributed to the Tennessee composer William Moore, and appears with the 1819 George Atkins text, “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship.” The tune title comes from the last line in the first verse of “Brethren…”: “Brethren, pray, and holy manna/Will be showered all around.”
I’m not someone who is terribly familiar with shape note singing (I plan on attending some upcoming New York City shape note singing gatherings to remedy this- nycsacredharp.org has a great listing of area singings). The best known sacred harp songbook is 1844’s The Sacred Harp. Unlike hymnals, where names of hymns are listed by text, sacred harp songbooks list their songs by their tune titles (so, HOLY MANNA would be listed as HOLY MANNA, not as “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship” or by any other text name). In fact, sacred harp songbooks are not hymnals: the music is meant to be sung at communal song gatherings, not in religious services. Of course, we do sing some melodies from the shape note tradition — including HOLY MANNA — in church services, but the harmony sounds completely different than what appears in a shape note songbook!
Since the tenor usually has the melody and most shape note songs have three or four parts, the sound is much different than the top-down-soprano-has-the-melody sound that we hear from church hymnals. Listen and compare THIS sacred harp reading of HOLY MANNA to THIS four-part top-down reading.
“Shape note” gets its name from the actual music notation. No key signatures are used, so in order to indicate pitch, each note has a specific shape that links it with a specific solfege syllable (think “do, re, mi” from The Sound of Music). Each voice part is written on a separate staff, as opposed to hymnals where soprano/alto is on one staff, and tenor/bass on another. (see this example of HOLY MANNA).
The shape of the songbooks themselves are different than hymnals: they are oblong (think “landscape” as opposed to “portrait” mode). This leaves room to print more verses on the side as opposed to fitting all of the verses under each line. It also means that each voice has to memorize its part pretty quickly in order to sing the additional verses!
In sacred harp singing, one or two leaders stand in the center of a group of singers organized by voice part and give a pulse by moving their arm up and down (and not from side to side). The effect of having the tenor melody with harmony above and below creates a sound that is unique in the history of American song.
My arrangement of HOLY MANNA on Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns uses a slower tempo than is usually sung in churches or sacred harp sings. The third line in the AABA structure (so, the “B” line) is extended by one bar and has some crunchier harmony (in comparison to the G pedal that characterizes the “A” lines).
“History of Hymns: ‘God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens’” by Norma Lee Kerns Barnhart, UMC Discipleship Ministries website
Music and Lyrics on hymnary.org.
Sacred Harp Bremen has audio files of individual voice parts — as well as of all voices together — of each song in the 1991 revision of The Sacred Harp songbook. Not only this, but each song includes YouTube links where you can get a feel of what a sacred harp singing looks and sounds like. HERE is the page on HOLY MANNA (click on “vierstimmig” to hear all voice parts together!).
NYC Sacred Harp Info on local NYC sacred harp sings as well as a link to purchase the 1991 revision of The Sacred Harp.
Sacred Harp Singing FAQ: Get your questions answered at this informative page.
Sheet music sample of Deanna’s arrangement of HOLY MANNA
View/purchase Deanna’s jazz hymn arrangements