Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Come Away to the Skies: A High Lonesome Mass"

In September of 2011 I was in the Portland area for Chor Anno's yearly brilliant concert since it included the premiere of my double choir reworking of William Billings' When Jesus Wept. Howard Meharg is the very fine conductor, founder, and musical director of Chor Anno, but my friend Reg Unterseher was the conductor for my piece, which takes the Billings canonical tune into very new and interesting harmonic and rhythmic territory. After the wonderful Chor Anno performance, Patrick Dill, a DMA student at University of North Texas studying with Richard Sparks, also performed the piece quite successfully with a UNT choir. Anyone interested in a perusal score please let me know either here or at

The title for the Chor Anno concert was "Come Away to the Skies: Sacred Music of Early America" basically utilizing part of the title of a new piece by ACDA executive director Tim Sharp and Wes Ramsay- Come Away to the Skies: A High Lonesome Mass. I have been meaning to blog about Tim and Wes' wonderfully creative piece for a long time- and now finally here it is!

Composers John Muhleisen, yours truly, Tim Sharp, and Wes Ramsay
(sorry it's not hi-resolution)

Come Away to the Skies is intended for concert presentation or within a liturgical service. Most of the performances so far have been in the concert mode, and recently added special slide shows and lighting designed by Tim and Wes have made the work an even greater success with audiences. The piece is not meant as a tongue in cheek novelty item with a fake feel to the bluegrass music- the music and texts have substance and creativity and truly represent the melding of traditions in the best possible sense. With that said, don't expect anything stuffy and academic- at the Chor Anno performance little grannies in the audience around me were tappin' their toes, especially to the Credo! The piece, which embraces both simplicity and also sublime matters of faith as well as musical folk tradition in this country, was a major highlight of the Chor Anno concerts.

 You can find very tasty  performances of all the movements of the piece on youtube, as performed by the Southern Nazarene University Choir, nicely directed by Jim Graves. That's Tim on the banjo in the video of the Credo!


Inquiries about the piece and arrangements to perform it should be made by contacting Wes Ramsay at Wes sends a list of the choral movements and information on the rental of the instrumental parts. He then sends the material to a download site after a director determines a performance.


The piece is for mixed choir and double bass, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and banjo. The instrumental parts can be modified and enhanced by players with improv skills (especially the fiddle part). There is no keyboard reduction. To me, the choral parts are very well-written and not difficult. I felt the Agnus, which incorporates the beautiful tune, What Wondrous Love is This,  was the epitome of grace and well worth performing either as part of the whole piece or by itself; thus I asked Tim right away whether they would allow excerpting of movements.There are plans to allow the Credo and Agnus Dei to be excerpted, with possibly other movements to follow. And just to clarify- although the titles of each movement are in Latin, the lyrics are in English.


2012 performances of the work were held at Seattle’s First Baptist Church, Berry College in Rome, GA, the Idaho ACDA Fall conference in Sun Valley, Tulsa, OK, and Ashville,NC.  2013 performances already set to take place will be in Gainesville, GA; Portland, OR; Columbia, MO, and Wichita, TX.

Tim will also be in London/Dublin in late December 2013 into Jan 2014 conducting both the Messiah by some dead guy named Handel AND Come Away to the Skies. You can read about it here.

NOTES  (© Goliard Music Group) by TIM SHARP [abridged for this blog by PC] 

Come Away to the Skies: A High, Lonesome Mass

This collection of music is a winsome set of folk-hymn arrangements originating in the mid-nineteenth century collections of the Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony, and organized around a significant liturgy of the church. The hymnbooks from which this music is found were unique to the southern region of the United States.

Tim Sharp

As Come Away to the Skies: A High, Lonesome Mass invites you into the hearing and singing of these timeless hymns, place yourself musically into a time when a singing experience paid little attention to the length of time of a service, but rather, invited you to enjoy community and extended gathering time through the learning of songs in singing schools, through shaped notes, and occasionally through days and even weeks of religious services. There is nothing nostalgic, however, about the poignancy and integrity of text and tune on which this collection is based.

The service known as a High Mass comes from the ordering of the Christian church liturgy into a standardized theological and dramatic liturgical flow. Many faith communities share this liturgy, in one form or another. Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church is known historically for the service of the mass, but Protestant groups such as Lutherans and Episcopalians also share the service. The adjective “high” before the word “mass” partially indicates a service that is chanted and sung, as differentiated from a service that is mainly spoken. The historic texts, usually known by their Latin name, form the various sections of the traditional mass: Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei.

The working title for this collection plays on the word “High Mass”, by inserting a term unique to the history of the bluegrass musical style, which is the word “lonesome.” This description, coined by Bill Monroe, the so-called “Father of Bluegrass Music”, is the idea of bluegrass music as a “high, lonesome sound.” Monroe is referring to his own vocal quality and range, as well as a modal melodic contour, a quality shared by bluegrass vocalists such as Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, and also heard in female musicians such as Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton. The subtitle, A High, Lonesome Mass plays on this combination of both service and sound.

The folk-hymns used to carry forward the ideas of the individual sections of the mass—“Kyrie”- “Lord, Have Mercy”; “Gloria”- “Glory to God in the Highest”; “Sanctus”-“Holy, Holy, Holy”-“Benedictus”-“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”; “Agnus Dei”-“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”—possess the same theological themes as these historic sections. These folk-hymns used come primarily from the Scotch-Irish theological and musical traditions, found uniquely in the American South, and published in the hymn collections mentioned above. Such hymn collections flourished throughout the American South in the mid-nineteenth century, and are repositories of some of the greatest hymns of that era.

The ballad and song tradition that migrated with early Irish, Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and English settlers into the southern Appalachian areas of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, was as natural as the transposition of their verbal languages and customs. The thousands of songs that flooded into the valleys of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers came from the lips of generations of folk performers of Southern Appalachia, and found their way into the culture and ways of the American South.

At first, cultural isolation kept music contained in the hills or in wilderness settings. But over time, population patterns caused a convergence of the various pods of population and cultures. Religion took a powerful hold on the settlers of these areas and in 1801, great revivals became popular in rural parts of the South. These gatherings resulted in a body of wilderness spirituals and folk hymns such as “Jesus Walked that Lonesome Valley”, “I Found My Lord in the Wilderness”, “Do Lord, Oh Do Remember Me”, “Down to the River to Pray”, and many, many more.

In the mid-nineteenth century, differences found in the American North and South were not limited to politics. There were differences in matters related to music and music instruction, as well. These differences were particularly distinct in matters related to hymn and gospel song publication and practice.

In the North, the European traditional practice of round-note notation prevailed, as well as a hymn tradition based on slow harmonic rhythms, parallel thirds and sixths and the use of common major keys. This tradition, known as the Reformed or Progressive Movement, promoted musical instruction through public schools, choral societies, music normal institutes, and the publication of sacred, educational, and popular music.

The South was more conservative and maintained the folk traditions and customs taught by the old 18th century singing schools popular throughout the southern regions. This tradition was characterized by rapid harmonic movement, parallel fourths and fifths, and minor and modal keys. Hymn notation in the South was characterized by the Character Notation Group, or as it is commonly called today, shaped-notes. This method of music education and music reading was based on such pedagogical methods as letter and numerical notation, as well as four and seven shape-note tune books. Nashville, TN, maintained these traditions in both singing schools and hymnal publication. In the North, hymnbook publications were rectangular, but in the South, the distinctive hymn and gospel book publications were oblong in shape, and captured the nickname of “long-boys.”

Folk-hymns used for this collection as statements for the traditional mass texts are Come Away to the Skies (MIDDLEBURY), Brethren, We Have Met to Worship (HOLY MANNA), Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning (STAR IN THE EAST), What Wondrous Love is This (WONDROUS LOVE), and Do Lord, Oh Do Remember Me. Additional tunes and stylings are inspired by this tradition, and settings are based upon bluegrass stacked harmony, bluegrass rhythms, and other unique stylistic qualities, including “high, lonesome” modal vocals. Instrumentation requires the classic bluegrass combination of acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and double bass. Spoons, washboard. Bones, or snare may be added as desired.

Texts and tunes forming the basis of Southern Appalachian folk-hymns and the bluegrass music that came from the Appalachian areas of western Virginia, and eastern and middle Kentucky and Tennessee, share common features. These include the elegant simplicity of the poetry and theology of the hymns; the modal, folk-song quality of the tunes; and even the interval of the rising fourth at the beginning of many of the tunes, theorized to be not so much a compositional idea, but rather, as a “gathering tone” for the group to find their starting pitch. And, there is the underlying theme and tone of hope, and optimism for a better place and a happier day.

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