A  SACRED HARP (1986) Op.27

Opus number: 27

Title: A Sacred Harp

Instrumentation: solo harp

Date written: November–December 1986, Boston

Length: eleven minutes

Commissioner: Ellen Ritsher, harpist

Premiere performance: May 18 and 19, 1988, Ellen Ritsher, harpist, Tsai Performance Center, Boston University

Important subsequent performances: Ellen Ritsher, harpist, February  1990, Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center, New York City; February 13, 1990, The Boston Conservatory

Recording: tape of Ritsher performance 1990 at The Boston Conservatory

Program notes: A Sacred Harp is a set of variations based on a hymn tune from the mid-19th century, found in a collection called The Sacred Harp. The original hymn tune was written in shape-notes, and the melody was found in the tenor voice, which is typical of music composed in the school of Sacred Harp singing. The song is nick-named Idumea, and the first line of its text is “And am I born to die?” In this piece, Bell has incorporated several of the coloristic effects found in Carlos Salzedo’s Modern Study of the Harp, such as “thunder,” which is produced by forcefully setting the bass wire strings in motion, thus causing the strings to rattle against each other; “falling hail,” descending glissandos played with the fingernails;  and the “pedal slide,” which alters the pitch of a string by a half-step while the sound is decaying, without playing the string again. A  Sacred Harpwas commissioned by Ellen Ritscher with funds obtained from the Kahn Career Entry Award Fund.

Reviews: “Far and away, this was the most interesting selection on the program and although [Ellen] Ritscher said she loves all the pieces she played equally well, ‘A Sacred Harp’ seemed to be her favorite. She told the audience of about 100 Wednesday this was the work’s premiere.

“The Bell composition is a set of variations based on a hymn tune from the mid-19th century, found in a collection of the same name. Bell, 36, is a composer and pianist Ritscher commissioned to write ‘A Sacred Harp’ with funds obtained from the Kahn Career Entry Fund. Ritshcer received a $10,000 grant from that fund in 1986.

“The work is a smooth line of strong melody punctuated by dissonance. At times the melodic line is so rhythmic one’s head starts to nod with the beat. At other times, it is quietly lyrical–only to be disrupted by resounding thunderclaps that slowly reverberate into the distance.

“Ritscher was able to generate from the seemingly-staid harp sounds that were complete surprises. At one point, she strummed the ancient classical instrument like a guitar. She tapped on the sound-board with her fingertips; created the sound of falling hail with a sharp glissando.

“‘A Sacred Harp’ conjured up images of urban America in the 1980s and created an expectancy. Something’s coming, the music seemed to say, and unequivocal joy was prefigured.

“The work seemed to echo the 25-year-old harpist’s personality: strong, vivacious and independent. Ritshcer is an assistant professor of the harp at the University of North Texas and a staff member at the Breckenridge Music Institute, a summer festival in Colorado.” ­Valerie Barna, Mesquite News (Texas) October 14, 1988