“Brightest and Best” by Shawn Kirchner (b. 1970) (Notes by Ryan Phillips)
The well-known melody to Brightest and Best is drawn from William Walker’s 1835 compilation “The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion.” This shape-note hymn and tune book was made up of 335 songs to be learned on solfège; a triangle represented ‘fa’, a circle ‘sol’, a square ‘la’, and a diamond ‘mi’. Together, these syllables were part of a system that helped bring music literacy and a new singing tradition to the Americas. Songs in “The Southern Harmony” were meant for all singers who wanted to sing. Tone was harsh and bright while conducting was simple; a jagged up and down motion strictly meant for tempo.
Shawn Kirchner’s contemporary arrangement maintains the original melody of the song while including a bluegrass-style instrumentation. In blending bluegrass and southern harmony, he emboldens the musical roots of North America. He also applies compositional techniques, such as canon, that would also have been used nearly two centuries prior. Novice choral singers would have utilized this technique to create harmonies without the need to learn different parts. Finally, Kirchner’s theme and variations arrangement of this old hymn-tune provides harmonic interest to sustain the listener through the ‘strophic’ verses.