If you’re not allowed to hope for freedom, call it Heaven and stick it in a song. That was the strategy that emerged on March 2 at Zankel Hall, when the Fisk Jubilee Singers presented a concert of spirituals under the aegis of the Harry T Burleigh Society as the inaugural event of their 2019 conference. Very few of the selected songs explicitly mentioned the myriad horrors of chattel slavery or looked forward to its end with yearning, but even in the most ostensibly joyous numbers, the subtext was unmissable.
Harry T Burleigh (1866–1941) is one of the many epochal figures whose contribution to this country’s musical landscape have largely been erased from mainstream historical narratives. He published numerous wildly popular arrangements of African American spirituals in an age besotted with blackface and minstrelsy; composed upwards of 200 original songs; desegregated the choirs of St George’s Episcopal Church and Temple Emanu-El; co-founded ASCAP; and worked closely with Antonín Dvořák during the Czech composer’s visit to this country.
The March 2 concert featured three of Burleigh’s spiritual arrangements, and they are artful and jewel-like, deftly weaving voices into a seamless texture. His treatment of “Balm in Gilead” features only sopranos and altos, but is crafted with such elegance that you don’t miss the lower voices; “My Lord, what a Mornin’” features aching suspensions and rich, surprising dissonances; “Heav’n, Heav’n” is sweet and unadorned.
Burleigh was the oldest arranger on the program by nearly two decades, and many of the other arrangements picked up on seeds nestled in his works. Moses Hogan (1957–2003) in “I Got a Home” and Gene Bartlett (1918–88) in “Here’s One” borrow the moody chord changes of jazz ballads, while John W Work III (1918–88) in “Rockin’ Jerusalem” picks up on the propulsive rhythmic energy of ragtime. This is, of course, to say nothing of the melodic contours and lyrical structures, both of which have become so engrained in U.S. music across many genres in the decades since that it’s difficult today to hear the originality they possess—they just sound like what songs sound like.
Emphasizing the connections with other genres of U.S. music, soprano Marti Slaten offered two art song-esque arrangements before the intermission, with Paul T Kwami, the Jubilee Singers’ conductor, at the piano. The second of these was a rendition of “Watch and Pray” – a devastating song about a mother and daughter contemplating being sold by their owner in the morning – from Undine Smith Moore (1904–89). The song rippled with piquant inflections and impressionistic figurations, and offered Slaten a chance to show off her striking ability to snap between characters on a dime.
Given this richness, it’s striking to think the concert spiritual might not exist as a genre at all if it weren’t for the Fisk Jubilee Singers themselves. The group was founded in 1871, and after a rocky start, they soon shot to prominence. In 1872, they performed for President Grant. In 1873, they became the first American choir (of any race) to tour Europe, impressing Queen Victoria so much that she commissioned a portrait of the group from her court painter, Edmund Havel, which is the only currently known life-size portrait of African Americans from the 1800s. The portrait was projected over the stage throughout the concert; after intermission, members of the choir dressed up in Victorian garb and told thumbnail biographies of each of the depicted original members.
At that time, spirituals were not performed in public, and were largely unknown outside the South. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were pivotal in preserving this body of song, and transforming it into a staple of the choral repertoire.
While it would technically be accurate to call the Jubilee Singers a college a cappella ensemble, the designation does not do them justice. They sing, with uncanny precision, in a plush bel canto style, seldom rising above an easy mezzo forte even in the most upbeat numbers. At times, this commitment to a hushed volume came at the expense of an even blend across the ensemble – it is mercilessly difficult to sing a high descant in a whisper without sticking out, and the sopranos were not always up to the challenge – but it’s a striking effect.
Nearly 150 years after the ensemble’s founding, the easygoing dynamic feels like a stinging rebuke to still-active demeaning stereotypes that cast black people as sassy, loud, and unrefined. If the style felt like an unexpected fit for their traditional arrangement of “The Gospel Train”, it allowed for the haunting, otherworldly conclusion to “In Bright Mansions,” as arranged by Roland Carter (b 1942). In a haloed murmur, the basses sang a repeating descending figure, lingering on each note that rubbed against the diaphanous held chord in the upper voices—a frisson of quiet ecstasy, a premonition of Heaven.
The concert ended with “Ride the Chariot,” arranged by Williams H Smith (1908–44), and a rousing rendition of the Fisk University alma mater (which Kwami welcomed the Fisk alumni in the audience to join in on). But the preceding number, Kwami’s own arrangement of “Wade in the Water,” felt like the program’s true conclusion. Featuring Chelseai Cunningham on the soulful, riff-filled solo part (her second solo of the evening, after an exquisite turn in “Here’s One”), it’s a pungent, brooding arrangement of a tune laced with buried, righteous anger. In the quiet, refined style of the Fisk singers, it was hair raising. Other songs affirmed the necessity of hope, promising Heaven as a release from literal bondage; “Wade in the Water” affirmed the necessity of justice, promising a reckoning far too long overdue.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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