Choral Music Reviews

In recognition of our recent observance of African-American History Month, I am giving attention to at least two “tried and true” octavos, plus one other that might be of considerable interest to some directors and choirs. Many of the old classics are overshadowed by newer releases, and I fear that young choral leaders might not be as exposed to some choral settings that truly deserve attention. There are several old arrangements and compositions from which to choose, so it was very difficult to limit my choices.

It is worth mentioning that there is much, much more to the choral music of African-Americans and of African peoples from around the globe, past and present, than what can be found in spirituals and other folk songs. Anthems, motets, large-scale works, songs inspired by poetry, children’s songs, game songs, and many other genres are well worth exploring. However, the focus of this article is upon a few classic spirituals that may be forgotten or overlooked. Here are three that reach the top of my list of personal favorites.

Ain’t Got Time to Die (SATB, tenor solo) Hall Johnson G. Schirmer

Hall Johnson (1888-1970) was considered to be quite an influential composer and arranger of choral music, as well as conductor of his self- named ensemble, “The Hall Johnson Choir.” During his career, Johnson’s ensemble could be heard on radio, in film, on stage, and in commercial recordings. With his ensemble and in his choral settings, Johnson was committed to preserving the authenticity of the spiritual, songs that he heard first-hand from his grandmother, an ex-slave. His arrangements detail the articulation and other expressive elements that promote elements of authenticity.

“Ain’t Got Time to Die” is arguably one of Johnson’s best known choral octavos. It is often mistaken as an arrangement of a spiritual. However, it is clearly an original composition as indicated in the publication: “words and music by Hall Johnson” that are intended to be performed “in the style of a Spiritual.” Unlike many other composer-arrangers of his time, Johnson includes performance notes that are certain to quiet any doubts regarding the composer’s intent.

Johnson was also very emphatic about proper performance practices for the concert spiritual. While gospel music is closely related to the spiritual, they are not the same genre. The spiritual is the nineteenth-century sacred rural song of the slave. Gospel music grew out of spirituals and blues, and developed in the early 20th

century in urban settings. Johnson insists that the concert spiritual—songs that are notated


and published for specific voicings and instrumentation, when applicable—is intended to be performed as choral art music, and not as pop music.

Those who are well-acquainted with the performance practices and conventions of the spiritual will note that the solo in Johnson’s “Ain’t Got Time to Die” gives room for some interpolations or minor deviations from the notes and rhythms. However, the singer should refrain from over-gospelizing the solo with runs and other pop devices. Again, Johnson articulates something to this affect in some of his writings, particularly in his collection of spirituals for solo voice and piano.

The choral notation is quite accessible to most choirs of mixed voices, and it is in classic call- and-response strophic form as spirituals are commonly described.

Ezekiel Saw De Wheel (SATB divisi, tenor solo)

Set for chorus by William L. Dawson Neil A. Kjos Music Co.

Alabama is home to one of the largest populations of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) was, perhaps, one of the most recognized names among those Alabama colleges due to the renown of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. In music circles, the name William L. Dawson of Tuskegee Institute rises to the top half of the list of choral arrangers of the African-American spiritual.

Although a respected composer known for his Negro Folk Symphony and other works, Dawson’s choral arrangements gained him popularity and prominence within the choral community. Ezekiel Saw de Wheel is one of his most recognized choral settings, and it finds its due place in standard choral repertoire. In classic “Dawson” style, he meticulously includes multiple articulations (accents, staccato, sforzandi, etc.) in the musical score. He alternates between homophonic texture and imitative lines that cleverly travel among each voice part. Adding to the interest and variety of the setting is the regular contrasting of dynamics when, if followed appropriately, ensures a very stimulating performance. Also, careful observation of the written dialect adds to the overall affect.

The latter third (or fourth) of Dawson’s setting of this spiritual is devoted to what choral directors of the ages affectionately refer to as the “doom-a loom-a” section, which is 6-7 pages of multi-divisi (one-system-per-page). The vocal effect that Dawson creates in this section could be considered as the bedrock of rhythmic choral

William Powell

divisi, to which later choral arrangers such as Moses Hogan cites as one of his major influences. The ostinato and the actual notes and rhythms of this last section are not inherently difficult. However, the layering, articulation, stamina, and required energy are what make this section of the piece difficult, in my opinion. Dawson’s setting of this spiritual as a whole is, indeed, intended for the advanced choir. The dedication written in the score is to Dr. J. Finley Williamson and the Westminster Choir.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (SATB divisi) Arranged by Rosephanye Powell Gentry Publications

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not take advantage of this opportunity to present a spiritual arrangement by Rosephanye Powell. While this inclusion is justified by her strong credentials and undisputed reputation as a composer, arranger, and choral conductor, this is also a shameless plug because she is my wife. However, only a small amount of research reveals that Rosephanye is considered to be one of the most published African-American female composers of choral music of our time.

In her arrangement of the well-known and often quoted spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Powell uses harmony and rhythm to give a sweeping and eerie affect to intensify the mournful quality of her musical setting of this spiritual. Her intent is to show the unmistakable despair one encounters when feeling abandoned or hopeless. She interweaves jazz harmonies into the support voices while maintaining the rhythmic momentum as the melody travels among all voice parts.

Unique to this setting, Powell also interweaves West African phrases as “tags” at the ends of the English verses. Among other things, this device helps to connect the spiritual to its West African roots while adding to the intensity of the arrangement. This is another choral setting that is intended for advanced choirs, not only due to its divisi, but also to other musical elements that are not as easily accessible to developing choirs. The arrangement was published in 2004 and it is dedicated to Philip Brunelle and VocalEssence (Minnesota) on their 35th


William Powell serves as Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Auburn University. He conducts the Chamber Choir, Men’s Chorus, Concert Choir, and Gospel Choir.

May/June 2019

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