How Can I Keep from Singing? – Lowry (1826-99), arr. Bullard (b.1947)

This article was written for the February 2021 issue of our parish magazine. You can read it again here:

At 8pm on Monday 4 January 2021 our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, broadcast live to the nation that the whole of the UK would be going into full lockdown with immediate effect. The news hit me hard. Not because it was unexpected – after all, since March 2020 we in the northwest of England had been in full lockdown, Tier 3 or Tier 4 restrictions, all in effort to curb the spread of Covid-19. So why? Despite best efforts to stick to the rules (which included not seeing my family for almost a year), the virus seemed yet again to be out of control. What had all the sacrifices and losses we had all suffered been for if there was seemingly no effect?

Struggling to shift myself out of the gloom I began flicking through music books – in much the same way as others might flick through magazines. I found “How Can I Keep from Singing?”, a traditional American song, arranged in this instance by Alan Bullard. As I happens, I had sung this song a few years ago with the Manchester Chorale, but the arrangement, by Sarah Quartel, was for 4-part harmony, with the lower voices accompanying the melody – and text – in the soprano voices. Being an alto, pretty much all I sang in that version was ‘how can I keep from singing?’, over and over again. The Bullard version though is for a solo voice accompanied by piano. With time on my hands, I read the text and played the notes. It spoke to me:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the clear, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What though the tempest loudly roars,
I know my Saviour liveth;
Although the darkness binds me close,
Deep in the night sweet songs he giveth.
His inner peace makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

I shared a link in the Maggie’s Music Makers WhatsApp group, and they liked it. I decided that we would learn to sing it and offer it in worship sometime soon.

There was an issue though. It is set quite high, and whilst some singers in the group would be able to manage it, not all would be comfortable with the pitch. Without access to a digital copy of the music I was unable to shift the notes down, so I spoke to Tom about transposing as he plays. Transposing whilst reading and playing music is similar to seeing a text written in French and reading it aloud in German. It requires a huge amount of skill, concentration, and practice. He agreed.

You can listen to recordings of the Bullard arrangement here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5R2DO7CJaRc and the Quartel arrangement here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rL3-gqGHfdw Our own singing group, Maggie’s Music Makers, sing it here: https://youtu.be/lc80mIBlgjw

It turns out that this has also been published as a hymn for congregational singing. The melody and accompaniment are simplified, and there are more verses. I wonder whether our parish would like to try it – when we are allowed to sing together again in worship.

Carol P


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