Choral Arrangements of the African-American Spirituals: Historical Overview and Annotated Listing.
In recent years, we have experienced a revival of spirituals and have blissfully enjoyed recordings by the Harlem Spirituals Ensemble, the Howard University Chamber Choir, Jessye Norman, and other groups and soloists. It is not until one attempts to track down a spiritual that one comes to appreciate the complexity of this body of literature. There are myriad issues that contribute to this complexity - issues that come with any oral tradition, such as how a piece is remembered and how the memory varies from region to region. Songs may be similar in theme, tune, or wording. Different spirituals may have an identical title, or a tune from one spiritual may join with the text from another.
In Choral Arrangements of the African-American Spirituals, Patricia Johnson Trice writes that "Existing text and reference books chronicling choral literature in the western world do little to recognize the contribution of the choral arrangements of the African-American Spirituals. . . . This book is a resource document that seeks to rectify this paucity of information for both choral directors and scholars" (p. vii). Sensitive to those new to this repertory, Trice includes a brief history of spirituals and three chapters on the development of the genre and its musical and performance characteristics.
Entries in the "Annotated List of Titles" include title, arranger, publisher, ranges, subject, key, meter, tempo, form, treatment (i.e., texture, harmony, difficulty), and comments; this information allows directors to make choices appropriate for their ensembles. Following the list of titles, Trice provides a short bibliography of several collections of slave songs that she used to validate the authenticity of the spirituals. This chapter constitutes the main part of the book. While Trice "aims to provide a practical and comprehensive reference" that lists "all known published arrangements" (p. 31), there are omissions in her volume; for example, R. Nathaniel Dett's arrangement of "I'll Never Turn Back No More" was not included. Researchers will need to consult standard bibliographic tools in order to complete a comprehensive search for choral arrangements of spirituals.
Trice includes an "Annotated List of Arrangers" that gives brief biographical information on each of the arrangers cited in the book. This is a valuable resource for the novice or the individual who does not have access to a more complete music reference collection.
At the end are title, arranger, and subject indexes. The title index could be more user friendly. For example, there are two spirituals entitled "Ain't That Good News" that have different first lines of text: "Ain't dat good news oh Lord" and "I've a crown up in the kingdom." Trice does not include textual information anywhere in her book, so the user is not clear which spiritual was arranged by Moses Hogan. This example illustrates the problem of dialect as well. Trice has listed this spiritual three times, with the following titles: "Ain'a That Good News," "Ain't-a That Good News," and "Ain't That Good News." Although it is important to respect and maintain dialect when dealing with an oral tradition, it is necessary to establish a standardized form of each title for purposes of access. Another problem with the title index is that there are not adequate "see" or "see also" references. For example, the popular spiritual "Go Down, Moses" may be known to some as "Let My People Go," but no reference is given to assist the user searching under the alternate title.
The arranger index is quite straightforward as a strict alphabetical list of arrangers, with an alphabetical list of song titles following each name. The subject index provides subject access to the songs both literally and based on their functional use in the Underground Railroad; for example, the subject heading "Death/Deliverance/Escape" is given for Underground Railroad passage songs. Unfortunately, each spiritual is assigned only one heading, so many of those under "Biblical Characters" and "Themes" are not fully accessible by subject. Should a future edition ever be written, this is one area that could be expanded.
Choral Arrangements of the African-American Spirituals is a valuable contribution to the small body of reference tools that deal with spirituals. It will serve an important function in furthering the availability and performance of this repertory.
KATHLEEN ABROMEIT Oberlin College
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1999|
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