Below I will describe the assignment I presented, but I will digress here to mention its inspiration. My father was also a college professor. His degree was in ancient near eastern archaeology, but working at a small college meant that he ended up teaching across the history curriculum, as well as classics and religion. By the end of his career, most of his time was consumed teaching Hebrew and the Hebraic scriptures in the seminary that shared the campus with the college. For one of his courses there he designed an assignment that he referred to as “the fish”—and it was one that his former students continue to talk about (whenever I run into them) more than ten years after his death.
“The fish” referred to Samuel Scudder’s account of his studies under Louis Agassiz at Harvard in the 1850s—how Scudder had “learned to see” only by being forced to take the time to “look at the fish” for days on end. My father was pursuing a similar end with his assignment, in which the students were to attempt to reconcile the chronologies of the kings of Judah and Israel as transmitted in the different biblical accounts. On the assignment (reproduced here), he notes—with a characteristic understatement—“It is likely you will have difficulty in doing this.” The UNDERLINED BOLD ALL CAPS text for emphasis is also characteristic. (I don’t know for how many years he used this assignment, but the worksheets that go with it were all prepared on a typewriter. That may well be because that was a method he was much more accustomed to using than trying to do a table in Microsoft Word.)
In fact, my father didn’t care what solution a student came up with for the textual difficulties this assignment compelled them to confront. There was no one “right answer.” The point was the confrontation itself. These were students intending to enter the Christian ministry, and he thought it was crucially important that they be confronted with real textual difficulties in the Bible. The dates don’t line up. Some students, he told me, would perform all manner of mathematical gymnastics to establish that every syllable of the Holy Writ available to them was inerrant. At the other extreme, some students’ reaction was “to hell with it.” It did not matter to my father where the students placed themselves on that continuum, but he wanted them to become aware of their attitude toward the text itself.
It seems like a descent from the sublime to the trivial to lay out my own “fish” assignment, as mine is aimed at nothing more than raising my students’ consciousness of textual issues at all. Where my father was throwing his students into the deep end, my assignment was just a chance for mine to get their feet wet in the philological wading pool. But I hope it sticks—that it makes them view any musical text put before them thereafter with a little skepticism: Why is it thus? How did it get that way?
There are many ways one might approach such an assignment. I commend to your attention Rachel Scott’s interesting article treating edition selection as a way of teaching information literacy, and particularly the worksheet she suggests as a pedagogical method. My own assignment is a practical assignment of a different sort, but also requires an examination of multiple sources of the same musical work.
I decided for this assignment to use a hymn-tune because
- such tunes are short
- they have often appeared in dozens (and sometimes hundreds and more) editions, each of which is a valid source for the assignment
- via the website hymnary.org, many of those editions are readily available to my students
- the transmission of a hymn-tune from one source to another may be straightforward copying of a full four-part texture, but it may just as likely be that the melody alone is taken over—perhaps even from memory—and a new setting is devised; or an editor may make any number of alterations to suit himself (and for much of the history of hymnal production, it is inevitably himself)
- if you find a hymn-tune that is generally familiar outside of the church, students may more readily grasp the relevance of otherwise esoteric textual issues to “real” musical life.
And so, my assignment:
Because they were transmitted primarily by rote memorization by musically illiterate congregations (unlike texts, which could be read from the page by anyone verbally literate), older hymn-tunes often exist in many variants. The purpose of this assignment is to get you to look for any distinct lines of transmission of the printed sources of a particular hymn-tune, called ANTIOCH, and perhaps familiar to you associated with Isaac Watts’s text “Joy to the World!” Go to the page for this tune at Hymnary.org, and select any EIGHT of the page scans at the bottom of the page. Print these off (although BE SURE TO NOTE the source of each, as this is on the webpage but wouldn’t be on the printed copy) and study them, looking for any variants you can find. While I am more interested in melodic textual variants, you should also look at the harmonizations: if you come across two identical harmonizations, they are pretty much guaranteed to be in the same line of transmission. Note also the verbal text: any alterations or omitted verses are significant clues. Don’t just print off the first eight it gives you—look around for some interesting ones. (There are some with some really glaring errors—including a completely misplaced first system.) Turn in to me:
- A list of your eight sources, numbered 1–8 (in chronological order, as best that can be determined), with the bibliographic details for each from Hymnary.org
- The eight page scans you printed, numbered to match
- A diagram (stemma) to indicate how sources 1–8 are related, if at all
- Notes of the idiosyncrasies you spotted that allowed you to construct the diagram (You don’t need to account for every detail, just enough to show me how you sorted it out.)
I thus make clear to my students that they have a very incomplete data set. From the dozens they might look at, I ask for only eight. Then, however, they are expected to take those eight and treat them as the sole surviving sources, collating the readings and then trying to connect them in any ways they can. I call the assignment “armchair philology” because they are spared the trouble of finding recalcitrant sources, and there are no consequences to ignoring all the evidence beyond their eight selections.
For my presentation at AMS a month ago, I picked eight and distributed them to the audience. I usually allow a week for my students to do this—even if they wait until the night before—but my AMS crowd had about eight minutes to do the best they could. And even with just a few sources, there is much to be seen. Consider these three sources, for example:
CS: Carmina Sacra or Boston Collection of Church Music, ed. Lowell Mason (2nd Ed., 1841)
SH: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, ed. William Walker (“New” Ed., 1854)
SOURCE: resolution of https://www.ccel.org/ccel/walker/harmony2/files/png75/Antioch.png was so poor that this is from IMSLP #168494
Sum: Songs of Summerland, ed. Thoro Harris (1943)
Source: https://hymnary.org/page/fetch/SoS1943/84/high (cropped)
The version of Songs of Summerland (1943)—a Seventh Day Adventist publication far removed in time from either of the nineteenth century sources above—is also directly connected to this line of transmission, notwithstanding the very different lyric to which it is set. Like SH, Sum conveys only a three-part texture derived from the reading given in CS, but this time it is the top staff of CS that is omitted; and of course in Sum it is reworked into a melody-at-the-top format. (The added “tenor” third in the final chord is surely editorial.) My students could thus determine that, whether or not CS was the direct source for Sum (as there may be other sources in between, or they may share a common ancestor), Sum could not possibly be derived from SH. If we had only these three data points—our stemma would be like the one at right.
Adding a fourth source naturally complicates the stemma, even when it too is clearly connected to the same line of transmission, with the same basic harmonization.
Anc: Song Anchor: A Choice Collection of Favorites for Sabbath School and Praise Services, ed. J. E. White (1878)
Source: https://hymnary.org/hymn/SA21878/page/123 (cropped)
SS: Songs for the Sanctuary: or Hymns and Tunes for Christian Worship, ed. Chas. S. Robinson (1868)
Source: https://hymnary.org/hymn/SFTM1868/page/81 (cropped)
—that is to say, different harmonizations (some straightforward, some showy), some with the long-held “King” note, some with the short. For these, at least with the data available, the stemma branches would only meet at the hypothetical Ur-text [x]. Over the years of using this assignment in class, I note that my students tend too readily to assume that this x marks the only meeting place for any of the sources. The fact that it is seldom so—that indeed these sources are connected by complicated webs—is only revealed by a minute study of the details. As Agassiz instructed, “Look at the fish.”
|SOURCE: "Haemulon melanurum" from Wikimedia Commons|
It is my contention that Agassiz’s scientific dictum should be the creed of any text critic: “Facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law.” A variant reading may be curious, but it is no more than that until it can be explained as part of a larger scheme. The critic’s task is not merely the mechanical listing of variants, but rather the creative connection of the dots to propose some pattern. And anyone can learn to do that, with time and patience—precious commodities in this day and time.
Although I’ve used this assignment with many students, I have had the opportunity to use it only once since starting this blog, and so the work of those most recent students in that very small class certainly led to the examples I used here. They deserve to be acknowledged: Taylor Hedger, Sarah Vermazen, and David Bates. I thank them for taking this assignment so seriously.