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Sacred harp fuguing tunes: Couples

01 Jan 2021

This post is part of a series on Sacred Harp fuguing tunes.
  1. Basic moves
  2. Couples

Writing a Sacred Harp fuguing tune, composers are challenged to take voices that are staggered — singing words out of sync — and gather them into sync again.

In the last post in this series, I talked about gathering two voices. Gathering four is trickier, but here I’m going to talk about one way to do it: having the voices move as couples.

In fact, anything you can do with single voices, you can do with couples, which makes this trick useful in many situations. Composers use it to write quick, compact fugues that wrap up very tidily — like the one in Lenox (SH 40), the song in the video above. They also use it in longer fugues for flashier effects — like in Youthful Blessings (CH 64), which I discuss below, and many other songs; I’ll briefly mention some examples.

“As couples”

As I said, getting two voices gathered is easy. For instance, here’s one way to do it. Suppose two of the voices are singing two-measure phrases like these.

The year of Jubilee is come;
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.

If they enter one measure apart, the phrases will be out of sync, like this: Two voices singing these words. The lower voice is ahead of the
higher. We saw in the last post that to sync them up, you can let the voice that’s ahead stretch out its rhythm, like this. The same diagram. The lower voice lets the higher catch up by singing
the second phrase slower.

Here’s the new idea in this post: we can get extra mileage out of this trick — or any other — by using it on pairs of voices. If we have pairs of voices a measure apart, then the pair that’s ahead can stretch out its rhythm. The same diagram, but each voice is replaced by two voices singing
at the same time. Since we got two single voices gathered before, we get two pairs of voices gathered now. And that’s everyone — we’re done with the whole fugue.

In square dancing, there’s a concept called “as couples.” Anything a single dancer can do, two dancers can do by pretending they’re a single dancer. If one person can turn alone, two can turn as a couple. If two can dance a do-si-do, four can do it as couples.

This is the same idea, so let’s use the same word. We gathered all four voices up using a trick originally designed for two, by having them move “as couples.”

Practical details

Now, in a real fugue, the voices often don’t start in couples. 1 1 Though sometimes they do: see McKay (SH 433), Sacred Mount (SH 456), and lots of others. Instead, they enter one at a time, and form couples later. Well, that’s ok, we know from the previous post how to pair two voices off. One easy way is to start with voices two measures apart and let one of them repeat a line of music, like in this picture: A pair of voices singing the text from the previous examples. The lower
voice repeats the first line, and the higher voice joins in on the
repeat. If you time things right, you can get both your couples formed this way: Two pairs of voices. In each, the lower voice repeats the first line,
and the higher voice joins in on the repeat.

The other complication is that the couples aren’t always close to each other on the staff, or close in pitch. Maybe the red and orange voices are a couple even though one is the treble and the other is the bass. Well, we can still think of them as a couple even if we don’t draw them next to each other anymore:

The same diagram again, but the voices are in a different order: voices
that form a couple might not be next to each other.


This is, in fact, the pattern of the fugue for Lenox (SH 40) — the one in the video above, one of the shortest and tidiest fugues in the book, and a popular choice for the first one to teach a new singer.

Now that we’ve seen it in pictures, let’s look at the notes.

Forming couples

First of all, the voices come together as couples. The bass and treble, who enter two measures apart, gather together as a couple when the bass repeats a line.

From SH 40, Lenox     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

From there, they stay as a couple until the end, singing the same words at (almost) exactly the same time.

From SH 40, Lenox     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

The tenor and alto make the same move, though they start a little later: first, they gather.

From SH 40, Lenox     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

Then, they stay that way, singing the same words at exactly the same time.

From SH 40, Lenox     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

Gathering as couples

Now, for a minute, let’s treat each couple as a single part.

We can even write them that way: melody and alto on the top staff, and the other two on the bottom, as if it was a church hymnal or a piano score.

From SH 40, Lenox     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

Now, we’re looking at the same problem of gathering two voices, only instead of voices we’re looking at couples. The two couples have staggered entrances. The bottom couple — the voices on the bottom staff — start a measure before the top couple, and then have to stretch out their rhythm at the end to let the top couple catch up.

Other songs that use this trick to wrap a fugue up tidily are Heavenly Dove (SH 371), Conversion (SH 297, though with some almost-coupling), Sounding Joy (SH 391), and New Bethany (SH 431).

Youthful Blessings

In a longer fugue, you can do a lot with couples. Youthful Blessings (64 in the Christian Harmony; also recently reprinted as 114 in the Shenandoah Harmony) is a great example.

This sounds satisfyingly complicated to sing — and it looks complicated in a drawing.

A complicated diagram showing the structure of Youthful Blessings. A more
detailed description of it comes in the paragraphs below.

But it works the same way as Lenox: by forming the parts into two couples and then gathering the couples. Once they’re gathered, it splits them back out into couples and gathers them again.

Here’s the first step of that: forming the first set of couples.

  Play mp3

Here those couples are gathering together — this time just by giving the lower couple a long held note:

  Play mp3

And here’s the second set of couples:

  Play mp3

Other songs with this sort of strong couple energy, at least for a stretch, are My Brightest Days (SH 546), The Better Land (SH 454), and Leaning on Jesus’ Breast (Cooper 450, reprinted as ShH 96).

Approximately as couples

Composers sometimes have two voices work as an approximate couple: they fall out of sync by a few beats one way or the other, but they never stray far. This happened in older songs (in Lenox, one of the voices strays from its partner for a beat), but it happens more in 20th Century ones, especially ones whose composers were connected to “convention song” gospel.

Here are the alto and bass of Wondrous Cross (SH 447) for the first half of the fuguing part. They continue like this, approximately coupled, until the end of the song.

From SH 447, Wondrous Cross     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

And here are the treble and bass at the end of the fugue in The Better Land (SH 454).

From SH 454, The Better Land     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

Writing all four parts out hymnal-style shows the bigger pattern: the top couple keeping perfect pace with each other, the bottom couple keeping approximate pace, and the two couples gathering together as if each was a single dancer.

From SH 454, The Better Land     Play mp3     Full score at SH Bremen

What’s it good for?

This has been a bunch of pictures and math. What is this trick actually good for? What sorts of music can you make with it?

Here are some kinds of fugues that really take advantage of couples for a dramatic effect:

  • Compact fugues that wrap up quickly: Lenox (SH 40), Russia (SH 107), Heavenly Dove (SH 371)
  • …or longer ones that get into sync quickly and then spend a long time there: New Bethany (SH 431)
  • Fugues with call and response between couples, often in songs that feel like edge cases — we’re not sure whether to call them fugues or not: Lawrenceburg (SH 380), Never Part (SH 94)
  • Ones with Gospel-quartet-style playfulness: The Better Land (SH 454)
  • Ones that let one couple hold back so the other can sing a duet: The Last Words of Copernicus (SH 112), Oxford (SH 306), Present Joys (SH 318)

It’s also common for longer fugues of all kinds to spend a little while in couples at the very end — not for any dramatic effect, just as a means to an end. Greenwich (SH 183) and Calvary (SH 300) are two well-known fugues that do this.

And there are fugues of all kinds where two voices spend the whole thing coupled up. Often the alto is one of the coupled voices. Sometimes this is because the alto was written later, and fitted into an existing rhythm. Other times, it seems to be because the composer wanted to make the fugue entrances more compact.