Six of the best choral arrangements of spirituals
Morgan State University Choir’s director Eric Conway chooses some of the best spirituals written for full SATB choir
'My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord' arr. Moses Hogan
New Orleans-born composer and arranger Moses Hogan was renowned for his arrangements of Negro spirituals, publishing over 70 such works, many of which were compiled in the 2002 Oxford Book of Spirituals. Hogan’s arrangement of 'My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord' makes use of deliciously varied vocals. The range of the bass voices is established very early on, following an electric and grabbing introduction.
The changes in texture are captivating: the majestic full-choir contrasts with bold solo bass passages, and this balanced handling of vocal parts continues throughout. Just when you think you know where the song is going, a wonderful antiphonal section breaks out between the female and male voices. The sopranos’ starring moment in the last phrase is the cherry on top of the cake.
'Ezekiel Saw de Wheel' arr. William Dawson
Telling the story of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel's divine vision, this song has been recorded by many well-known American singers, including baritone Paul Robeson and blues singer John Lee Hooker. This was one of Dawson's final arrangements of his career, following a handful of original compositions.
This particular arrangement is a true tour de force, which will stretch the capabilities of most choirs. The brilliance of this arrangement is the cyclical nature and multi-layered writing, which means you can feel the ‘wheel’ turning in the air with the sound. This is particularly noticeable towards the end of the piece when the entire ensemble sings the title lyrics. The solo alto line is particularly striking, establishing itself with a soulfulness to complement the full-bodied sound of the choir.
'You Must Have that True Religion' arr. Roland Carter
This is considered core repertoire for historically black college university (HBCU) choral ensembles. The beauty of any great spiritual is the ability to not just have one type of texture throughout, but various sections that take the listener on a musical journey. This arrangement does exactly that.
The lyrics emphasise the honesty and truth to a religion that one should possess to earn the ultimate prize in heaven. The entire ensemble states this at first, then a soprano soloist above the group, ending with a wonderfully contrapuntal section. The men in this section traditionally start slower, singing ‘true religion, true religion, true religion’, which increases in speed until it sounds like a locomotive engine building up steam.
'I Know I’ve Been Changed' arr. Damon Dandridge
This is another example of an arrangement made up of many different choral configurations of the main theme. With soloists, separate sections for men and women and call-and-response reverberating throughout the main choir, there is a constant change in texture throughout. These multiple sections allow the listener to feel as though they have travelled with the choir on a musical journey and have, in fact, been changed – just as the title suggests. Damon Dandridge, like Roland Carter (above) works with choirs in historically black college universities in the US.
'I’ll Stand' arr. Raymond Wise
This is a wildly athletic spiritual which takes precision and clarity to pull off. This spiritual is asking whether you will stand for your Jesus or Religion. Its brilliance lies in the speed at which the two-note motif travels throughout the chorus. It’s a real crowd-pleaser.
Raymond Wise is a professor of African American studies and director of the African American Choral Ensemble at Indiana University Bloomington, having begun his musical career at the age of three, singing gospel music with his family singing group 'The Wise Singers'. He is also an ordained priest and has recorded a huge amount of African American music with various ensembles.
'I Just Come from the Fountain' arr. André Thomas
The title and lyrics of this spiritual refer to a fountain of life-sustaining holy water, with a section that rhythmically repeats ‘been drinking’. Again, it’s a very antiphonal work, with interactions between the bass and treble voices, which creates a really great effect. Audiences can almost see the sound bouncing back and forth around the ensemble. André Thomas is a current professor of music at Florida State University, and is a published author as well as a conductor and composer, having written Way Over in Beulah Lan': Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual.
This article was written by Eric Conway, director of the Morgan State Unviersity Choir. Details of their upcoming performances can be found here.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.