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Take a few minutes this New Year’s week to introduce your students to the shape-note tradition in early American music with this beautiful performance of the old shape-note carol “Star in the East,” arranged for voices and handbells by William Allen Pasch (b. 1948):
We’re coming to the end of our Homeschool Holiday Music Month in the River Houses — it began on the first of December and will conclude this Sunday on Twelfth Night. Throughout the month we’ve been sharing an assortment of seasonal favorites in a great variety of styles and genres — classical and modern, sacred and secular, serious and silly — along with a collection of easy educational notes that can help you teach little lessons all along the way.
The words to “Star in the East” (also known as “Brightest and Best”) were written by the Anglican bishop and hymn-writer Reginald Heber (1783–1826), and they have been paired with a number of different tunes over the last two centuries. By far the best known is the anonymous American melody heard above, published in the famous Southern Harmony collection of 1835. The tunes in Southern Harmony were popular across the country in the nineteenth century, but many fell out of fashion in later decades. They have since undergone a great revival in popularity, and many professional and amateur singing groups in the United States and around the world now include them in their repertoires.
Southern Harmony was one of many early American song books that printed its music using shape notes, a system of notation that makes it easier for non-musicians to learn a tune. Instead of the standard oval note shape used in conventional music printing, shape-note song books use squares, triangles, and diamonds, as well as ovals, to represent the different pitches on the musical scale.
Because of the popularity of Southern Harmony and related early song books, including the very popular Sacred Harp collection of 1844, the type of music that these works contain has come to be generally known as “shape-note music,” even though that term properly refers to the system of notation rather than the musical style.
Here’s another grand foot-stomping performance of “Star in the East,” by the Minnesota vocal group The Rose Ensemble:
What marvelous musical discoveries have you been making in your homeschool during this Holiday Music Month? 🎵 ❄️ 😊
❡ Musical memories: If you’d like to fill your homeschool with some beautiful background sounds during the holidays, why not tune in to the 24-hour Holiday Channel from WQXR, the famous classical music station in New York City. “Enjoy the sounds of orchestras, choirs, brass ensembles and more as we celebrate the sacred and secular sounds of the season.” I have it on as background music almost all day. Won’t you join me? 📻 🎵 🎄
❡ Stay in the loop: This is one of our occasional posts on Homeschool Arts & Music. Add your name to our weekly mailing list (riverhouses.org/newsletter) and get great homeschool teaching ideas delivered right to your mailbox all through the year. 🗞