Summary for the busy executive: Good, in surprising ways.
The Black spiritual represents one of the greatest unions of music and poetry in Western culture. Furthermore, it's a poetry meant for singing – syntactically simple, emotionally direct, fitted to musical rhythms rather than to poetic meters. Frankly, not even Shakespeare's songs are this good. Certainly they lack the sudden lyrical soaring and the astonishingly sharp detail typical of just about every spiritual:
"My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall,"
"My Lord, He calls me, He calls me by the thunder. The trumpet sounds within-a my soul,"
"They whipped Him all night long, and He never said a mumblin' word,"
"Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it causes me to tremble."
"Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there"
Equally important, although conceived in specific historic and cultural circumstance, the spirituals speak far beyond their original audience. They are part of everyone's musical and literary inheritance. For this reason, British composer Michael Tippett arranged five well-known ones for his oratorio A Child of Our Time, to function as the modern equivalent of the chorales in Bach's Passions.
The general interest in the spiritual dates back to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of students who toured with this repertoire to raise money for Fisk College. According to their testimony, the parts were originally "lined out" – that is, conceived one at a time in someone's head and taught to each section, then adjusted during the combined singing as necessary. The Fisk singers had a tremendous, far-reaching impact. Not only did they bring this material to general consciousness, but it's also not too far-fetched to claim them as the ancestors even of barbershop quartets and doo-wop – in short, a great deal of our vernacular vocal ensemble tradition. In addition, black composers like H. T. Burleigh, Hall Johnson, and William Levi Dawson – all of whom have strong ties in their concert music to the late 19th-century European symphonic tradition – all came up with loving and popular choral arrangements. One should also mention Alice Parker (with occasional input from Robert Shaw) and Salli Terri, both of whom stressed an almost-orchestral counterpoint – in Parker's case, often canonic – derived from the tunes themselves. The question becomes how fancy should these arrangements get? Notice that this is not a question one asks of Bach's, Brahms', or Verdi's relationship to their indigenous music. That we ask it all indicates something of our perverse history and present, of course, but also of our sense of the music's "belonging" to us. Tippett's arrangements – brilliant, convincing, and powerful – nevertheless put the spirituals in a whole other emotional place – not higher, but different. The same goes for the excessively perfumed or even burnt-cork, we-so-happy arrangements that have appeared in much of the commercial market. All this has led to a reaction, or – better – a return to the "original" style.
Chanticleer Music Director Joseph Jennings has provided most of the arrangements here. Jennings grew up in Georgia with experience in both the Missionary Baptist Church and the A. M. E. Church. In addition, he idolized such groups as the Clara Ward Singers and the Gospel Harmonettes, influenced by the rhythmic "lining out" of the distinctive quartets of Jefferson County, Alabama. In his notes to the recording, Jennings writes:
With the spirituals and gospel music, it was necessary that I lay some basic groundwork for CHANTICLEER. One of the first things was to do away with the printed page. What happened was a type of experience-compression and transfer. Traditions are passed along generation to generation, but in this case within one generation and across cultures. Rote learning is a very foreign concept to "trained" musicians. Some of us found it very diffcult at first, but as time went on, the ears developed and certain idioms and voicings became recognizable.
Apparently Jennings "lined out" the parts. It's also interesting that his arrangements tend to blur the distinction usually made between gospel and spirituals. In both gospel and Jennings's arrangements, there's usually a musical division of soloist and tutti. Also, as Jennings points out, the album spans several styles of American Black sacred music. Perhaps the most startling comes in "Am I a Soldier of the Cross," when the group goes into the classic "meter" singing of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to a text partly written by Methodist hymn-writer Isaac Watts. Believe me, this sounds like nothing out of the English Hymnal. Prepare yourself for astonishment.
Chanticleer also performs two classic arrangements: Roy Ringwald's "Deep River" and Hall Johnson's "I've Been 'Buked." Ringwald's sliding harmonies recall the chromaticism of César Franck and for some may cross the line of "arty." To me, his harmonic ear is just about faultless. I can't imagine more fitting progressions. Hall Johnson, as far as I can tell (I've heard only a miniscule part of his output), was a genius in small forms. The part writing is elegant, in a mathematical sense: he gets an incredibly rich sound from just a few notes.
Chanticleer does beautifully, of course – great tone, great intonation, crisp diction. Nevertheless, they don't sound like any Black church choir I've ever heard, but the purposes to some extent differ. In the church, music, especially electrifyingly joyful music, is the way the Spirit enters you. A performance as Apollonian as Chanticleer's would probably bring a comment from one of the deacons: "Y'all ain't singing. We're here to worship the Lord." In that sense, some of Jennings's concern for preparation has been in vain. Chanticleer sings too pretty. On the other hand, it's that very restraint, love of, and the care to render musical justice to the material that makes this disc. Chanticleer always looks up to the music. If we don't see heaven, they at least let us suspect it might be there.
Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz