SANTA CLARA CHORALE | 10-25-14 | 8 PM @ Mission Santa Clara
My good friend and colleague Marlissa Hudson and I in concert with the Santa Clara Chorale featuring the spirituals of Moses Hogan and the generations of composers who inspired him. Check out the program notes below.
Hairston – Hold On!
Hogan – Walk Together Children
Hogan – Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child
Burleigh – My Lord What a Mornin’
Moore – Watch and Pray
-MH & SHW
Moore – We Shall Walk through the Valley in Peace
Boatner – Oh What a Beautiful City
-MH & SHW
Johnson – Ain’t Got Time to Die
-SCC & MH
Hogan – My God is So High
-SCC & MH
Moore – Come down Angels
-MH & SHW
Dett – Listen to the Lambs
-SCC & MH
Johnson – Take My Mother Home
Mills – Jesus Lay Your Head in the Window
Bonds – He’s got the Whole World in His Hands
-MH & SHW
Dawson – Balm in Gilead
Hogan – The Battle of Jericho
-SCC, SCC Honor Singers, MH
The spiritual has been a part of the American musical tradition for centuries. Born out of the interracial encounter of American slavery, spirituals are an expression of the pain, suffering, and oppression experienced by the enslaved Africans. The spirituals also provided a way to cope with the inhumanity of the slave experience, and provided hope that there could be joy, relief, and redemption in the Promised Land. In the spiritual, enslaved Africans reinterpreted Euro-American hymnody through an African lens, adding melodic ornamentation, emotional expressivity, diverse timbral effects, and rhythmic nuance to this already rich choral tradition.
The concert spiritual is often traced back to the 1870s with early performances of skillfully arranged pieces by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, the first African American choral group to tour internationally, whose performances paved the way for similar choirs to be founded across the country. The concert spiritual was a Reconstruction era vehicle for making the African-American experience understandable to the masses, for spreading culture and entertainment, and particularly for raising money for the fledgling black colleges like Fisk, the Tuskegee Institute, and Hampton University. Just as the spiritual itself was a musical and cultural fusion, the concert spiritual fused the constructs and techniques of classical composition with rich source material. The resulting arrangements and compositions in the style are sophisticated pieces of music. Just as composers like Dvořák, Vaughan Williams, Copland, Bernstein, Holst, and Prokofiev drew upon folk song repertoire to create incredible compositional works, the composers featured in tonight’s performance took the folk tradition of the spiritual and placed it into a new context. These composers took the spiritual from the fields, churches, and brush harbors and brought it into the concert hall. By doing so, they exposed the United States and beyond to the inherent musical richness, cultural complexity, and emotional depth of the spiritual.
For Moses Hogan (1957-2003), the spiritual was a lifelong passion. He grew up attending the New Zion Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his uncle was the organist and choir director. As a part of the rich environment of choral singing in the predominantly African American churches of New Orleans, he was regularly exposed to a wide variety of choral music. This familiarity with the classical canon alongside the spirituals and gospel music was a hallmark of his brilliant, but short, career.
Hogan was an accomplished pianist by nine, and he graduated as one of the first students from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. He then went on to earn a BM in piano performance from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1979 and studied piano performance and vocal accompanying at the Juilliard School. In 1980, he returned to his choral roots and founded the New World Ensemble, a volunteer choral group in New Orleans that sang a wide repertoire, including spirituals. According to the Oxford African American Studies Center, while directing the group, Hogan noticed “that spiritual singing was becoming increasingly influenced by the gospel style of singing and that the popularity of spirituals was decreasing. He then committed to continuing the tradition of choral concert spiritual singing by composing new arrangements of spirituals.”
Hogan went on to establish the Moses Hogan Chorale, a group that toured internationally from 1991 until 1999, performed at the National American Choral Directors Association convention, and recorded two albums of spirituals with countertenor soloist Derek Lee Ragin. In 1998, at the encouragement of veteran spiritual arrangers Wendell Whalum and Jester Hairston, Hogan founded the Moses Hogan Singers. This group was a nationally auditioned ensemble of twenty-eight professional singers dedicated to the performance of concert spirituals. The group toured widely and released two recordings, including one with soprano Barbara Hendricks.
In the year before his death, Hogan was the world’s foremost authority on the concert spiritual. His role as editor of the 2002 The Oxford Book of Spirituals, a collection of concert spirituals from the most significant voices in the genre, firmly established not only his preeminence, but also the debt that he owed to these other musicians. Moses Hogan may be responsible for injecting the concert spiritual into standard choral repertoire and for introducing professional choral spiritual singing to the world, but he was only able to do this through the influence and encouragement of the generations that came before him. This concert is a testament to the legacy of this one man, the men and women who inspired him, and to the profound depth and power of the spiritual.
That power to inspire and encourage is exemplified in the opening arrangement, Hold On! by Jester Hairston. This spiritual, also known as the Gospel Plow, became a touchstone for the Civil Rights movement in a slightly altered version, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” The text blends two common themes of traditional spirituals, work and perseverance. While singing the text, “Keep yo’ hand on de plow” could certainly be taken literally as there were certainly severe consequences for poor performance on the plantations, spirituals are also thought to have been used to communicate in coded ways. These could manifest as escape routes to the Underground Railroad (as is often associated with the song Follow the drinking gourd) or simply in an attempt to turn to God to overcome the terrible challenges of daily existence.
Our first two spirituals by Hogan show the variety of his compositional technique. Walk Together Children is an upbeat and moving arrangement with an almost march-like piano accompaniment that communicates a call for unity and perseverance. Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child is much more evocative of the most extreme types of loss and speaks clearly to the experience of being stranded in a foreign land with its line “A long way from home.”
Harry T. Burleigh’s output of spiritual arrangements for solo singers is a major contribution to the solo vocal canon. His 1917 publication of Deep River gained him prominence as a composer and he followed that success with the publication of many arrangements, and the opportunity to coach many great singers, including Marian Anderson. Burleigh writes of the spiritual repertoire:
They were never “composed”, but sprang into life, ready made, from the white heat of religious fervor during some protracted meeting in a camp or church, as the simple, ecstatic utterance of wholly untutored minds, and are practically the only music in America which meets the scientific definition of Folk Song. Success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important as the spirit; and then the rhythm, for the Negro’s soul is linked with rhythm, and it is an essential characteristic of most all the Folk Songs.
Burleigh’s My Lord What a Mornin’ certainly exemplifies this deep feeling. Burleigh notes in his arrangement that in one of the earliest editions of the Jubilee songs, the text was “what a mournin’”, not “mornin’”. These two ways of understanding the text highlight the tension between the great struggle of those enslaved and their incredible optimism and hope in spite of that struggle.
Undine Smith Moore’s Watch and Pray is perhaps the least veiled of the spirituals presented this evening, beginning by asking the question, “Mama, is Massa goin’ to sell us tomorrow?” to which the immediate response comes, “Yes, Yes, Yes.” In Moore’s setting, the piano accompaniment is sparse and almost reads like accompaniment for a dramatic recitative from an oratorio by Bach. Rolled chords provide the underpinning for a wide ranging melody that is consistently expressive of the text. As the song concludes “Oh, Mama, Don’t you grieve after me,” the Chorale responds with another of Moore’s arrangements We Shall Walk through the Valley, in an attempt coming to peace with the grief and loss expressed in the previous arrangement.
Edward Boatner’s arrangement of Oh, What a Beautiful City follows and paints the biblical image of the Promised Land, a heavenly city built where all could dwell with the Lord. The accompaniment is considerably more active and there is a greater sense of elation and excitement, following the spirit of the text, which evokes a time when all are in the Promised Land, rather than struggling to reach it.
The first half concludes in a similar way to how it began. While Hairston’s arrangement reminds one to Hold On! in the face of adversity, In Hall Johnson’s Ain’t Got Time to Die, there is no time for death and suffering instead, time is spent instead praising Jesus, working for the kingdom, and helping one another.
Hogan begins the second half, this time with both choir and soloist. My God is So High is relatively simple in construction, but the careful arrangement of articulation and dynamics in the choral accompaniment bring the arrangement to life and show the great economy that Hogan had at his disposal to create truly effective spiritual arrangements.
In Moore’s Come Down Angels, we see the much more bombastic and rhythmic side of the composer. The accompaniment is tremendously active and takes full advantage of the piano, an instrument that Moore studied at Juilliard. In addition to the fireworks in the piano part, the vocal writing is show-stopping in its full use of the soprano’s range.
In many ways, among all the pieces on the program, Listen to the Lambs is truly more than an arrangement in its use of compositional techniques. Labeled by Nathaniel Dett as “A Religious Characteristic in the form of an Anthem for Eight-part Chorus of Mixed Voices,” his writing is evocative of Dvořák and incredibly imaginative in the way that it evokes a variety of affects and images. The piece moves back and forth between dark and foreboding sections about the suffering lambs crying out and incredibly peaceful sections where the soprano soloist tells us that “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”. It is also worth noting that this work is one that was highly appreciated by other arrangers. Hogan includes it in his Oxford Book of Spirituals, and on his 1955 recording of spirituals, William Dawson included Dett’s arrangement as one of the very few pieces by another composer.
Hall Johnson’s Take My Mother Home is a visceral depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, told from the perspective of an onlooker. The arrangement makes particular use of the piano, sometimes incredibly sparse to barely reinforce the soprano melody, and at other times grotesquely poignant, particularly in its portrayal of the nails being driven into Jesus on the cross. It is followed by an arrangement of Jesus, Lay Yo’ Head in da Window by Hudson’s frequent collaborator, Marvin Mills who is a gifted composer, arranger, and keyboardist.
After these two emotionally charged pieces, Margaret Bonds’ classic arrangement of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands and Dawson’s Balm in Gilead offer solace and peace. Bonds’ arrangement ends full of exuberance and while Dawson’s has flashes of fullness, it primarily settles into soothing.
The concert concludes with one of Hogan’s best known choral spiritual arrangements. The Battle of Jericho is typical of the complex and carefully worked arrangement that makes Hogan so popular. The tenors and basses set up a driving ostinato while a three part women’s texture proclaim the melody in a three part texture evocative of the very trumpets that triumph over Jericho. The work actively paints the picture of the battle, right through the final destruction of the walls at the end.
William Dawson concludes his 1955 article on the interpretation on the spiritual by saying:
The religious folk-songs of the American Negro are not to be considered lightly. They express the outlet of suppressed emotions and religious fervor; they are the reflection of a deep spiritual experience. The creators of this unique body of song literature seem to have had the spirit of God in their hearts. If the interpreter gives these songs the consideration and study that they require, both he and the hearer are certain to have a rich spiritual reward.
In Hogan’s closing to the introduction to the Oxford book of Spirituals, he speaks of the composers who inspired him saying:
[The composers] have brought a dimension of harmonic sophistication to the traditional melodic and lyric content that has enabled new generations to experience the power contained in these songs. It is indeed a tribute both to the suffering of the slaves and to their musical genius that they were able, under conditions of unspeakable adversity, to wring from their hearts music of such poignancy and power. These songs have been collected here because they are of enduring quality, and they still enrich the spirits of those who listen with the heart as well as the ear.