Greetings, dear GCS,
While attending a summer course in 2002 at Westminster Choir College (Princeton New Jersey) I had the opportunity to meet and briefly study with Moses Hogan, one of the world’s foremost arrangers of spirituals for choral use. Hogan died just a few months after that time at the age of 46.
Hogan represents the continuation of a continuous line of African American musicians beginning perhaps with HT Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett (in fact a Canadian) and Jester Hairston who dedicated themselves to arranging spirituals for all sorts of choirs to perform and offer in their church services. While usually drawing on traditional jazzy rhythms, repetition, call/response, the adopted Christian faith and other intrinsic aspects of the original songs, many of these arrangements are quite sophisticated – and some of them, extremely hard.
Knowing the simple beginnings of spirituals, and the simple musical characteristics clearly traceable to the African music brought across by slaves (and their ancestors), one point of view names these sometimes complex and often beautiful creations as highly colonial in nature, built (as is so much else of North American culture) on the suffering backs of slaves. They bring great amounts of enjoyment to mainly-white choristers and audiences, and great amounts of money to publishers (usually a good deal more than to composers).
Another point of view, articulated by Moses Hogan, is not only that the music of slavery holds enough integrity and power to deserve a place with the great compositions of history, but that it shares something deeply in common:
“All good music has soul. There’s soul in Mozart, soul in Bach. The only difference here is the colour of the horse — the colour of the voices.”
The performance I’m sharing with you today is from one of my Toronto groups, the Orpheus Choir of Toronto – usually (and currently) conducted by my colleague Robert Cooper, but in the context of this pandemic video, unconducted, as choristers filmed and recorded themselves to create the whole. The young Filipino baritone soloist Daniel Rae Acebugue is a one of the choir’s “Sidgwick Scholars” – an extraordinary group of young people the choir supports in their education who in turn lend their voices to its work. The video was created in memory of longtime choir supporter and treasurer Pierre Zurawicki.
The video of Hogan’s arrangement features solitary Orpheus choristers filming themselves around Toronto in winter 2020/21 – and, perhaps in a strange echo of the spiritual’s origin-story, they seem to seek liberation – from COVID, from winter, from isolated self-recording (of the kind the GCS members also suffered through that winter and spring).
Does this treatment, featuring this multicultural Toronto group, honour – or dishonour the victims of slavery who sang this song perhaps seeking no lesser freedom from their captivity than their own death to join their Saviour and God in heaven? Incidentally, I know the chorister whose grassy mountainous backdrop – perhaps the freedom the performance sought – closes the video, but I’m not sure where she found the completely snow-less setting, which must have been filmed between December and January of that winter.
Stay as safe and happy as you can! If you haven’t been for a while visit the Georgetown Choral Society website, Facebook Page and YouTube Channel – where you can subscribe to stay connected.
‘See’ you next week – take care of yourselves and those around you. Brighter days lie ahead.