Arts & Culture

Sing a song of praise

5 min read

Every Monday a small group of students gathers in Andover Hall for a sacred musical journey.

It’s not a typical academic class experience. Instead of a chalkboard or lectern, there’s a piano and a CD player. Instead of a classroom, students sit in a semicircle in a dark, paneled Harvard chapel that is (weather permitting) suffused with soft afternoon sunlight. They look poised for choir practice, and there is singing, but it’s all part of the curriculum.

For the past four years, Harry Huff has taught a course at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) that explores religious history through the lens of European music. Last year, given the opportunity to teach another class, he didn’t hesitate, jumping at the chance to develop a course around the body of sacred music unique to the Americas.

“I have this love for American music, and I’ve always wanted to talk about it and be able to turn people on to it,” said Huff, music director and lecturer on ministry at HDS.

His new class, “The American Spirit in Music,” examines 16th century music in New Spain (Mexico); the Calvinist psalms of the Puritans; William Billings and the Colonial tunesmiths; the rise of Sacred Harp and other shape-note music; African-American spirituals and work songs; the rise of blues and gospel, both black and white; the sacred jazz of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane; 19th, 20th, and 21st century American classical composers; and modern trends incorporating electronics and nature sounds.

“Through listening, discussion, and writing,” the course description reads, “students will gain an appreciation for six centuries of contributions to the canon of sacred music on this side of the Atlantic.”

Raised in a small town in eastern Tennessee, Huff’s own musical epiphany came at the age of 5 with the aid of an old upright piano and the 1779 hymn “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” by the English poet William Cowper. Learning to play the piece, Huff said, made him want to “probe the mysteries of music.” Organ lessons followed, as did regular work as an organist at various churches, and ultimately years of living in New York City working as a pianist in some of Manhattan’s most exclusive clubs. In between, he found time to earn his master of music degree from Yale. He was also appointed to his first post in the Episcopal Church, the denomination that would become the foundation for his working and spiritual life.

Huff lends his broad range of musical experience to the class — he has collaborated with opera star Jessye Norman and pop artists Judy Collins and Art Garfunkel. He also served as associate University organist and choirmaster at Harvard’s Memorial Church for four years and is currently minister of music at Old South Church in Boston.

Bringing the music they study to life has become a regular and essential part of the new class. Huff was surprised and thrilled to find his small group was populated with singers.

“It hadn’t occurred to me when I was designing the syllabus that we would actually be singing, but I’ve got all parts, from high soprano to low bass, so we have been able to sing every class. … We were able to sing Sacred Harp music; rounds from the Colonial tunesmith William Billings; spirituals and gospel music.”

In addition to a sung version of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” Huff’s recent class on sacred jazz included a moving rendition of Ellington’s “Heaven,” with student Jeremy Innis on the alto saxophone and Huff on piano. After the performance, the second-year M.T.S. student said the class keeps him connected not only to music, but also to his spirituality and the religious history of America.

“It’s very important to the way that I approach religion because music is the way that I feel like I participate most, the way that I enter my spirituality,” said Innis, adding that he enjoyed learning about different forms of music and the connections and the influences of various composers on one another.

“One thread we traced last week was the classical composer Dvorák and how he taught and was taught by African Americans in the U.S., and how he influenced the work of Gershwin and Duke Ellington. It’s neat to see how these things connect through history.”

After the class listened to and discussed several sacred jazz tracks, and watched segments of a film of Ellington’s 1965 Sacred Concert at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Huff introduced a presentation by Chris Hope, a first-year M.Div. student from Atlanta, who came to Harvard to study ministry in the Pentecostal tradition. Hope is also a member of the Holy Hip Hop movement — an initiative to bring the gospel to the hip-hop community — as well as the host of the show “Hip Hope Radio” on WHRB. His lecture, peppered with rap, offered a 21st century perspective on sacred music.

“Rap,” Hope told the class, is “parallel to spirituality at its highest level.”

For Huff, the class is, above all, an opportunity to explore religion and history through sound and bring his love of music and its various sacred traditions, both young and old, to his students.

“I feel like it’s important for me to engender a love of music that is timeless. And in this class, when we are dealing with indigenous music — a lot of it ‘nonclassical’ — I consider it classical because it is timeless.”