Tag: spirituals

Adolphus Hailstork: Music is a Service

Adolphus Hailstork


Adolphus Hailstork turned 80 in April, but he has been celebrated since the beginning of this year. On January 20, a wind band arrangement of his Fanfare on “Amazing Grace” was performed by the United States Marine Band during the inauguration of President of the United States Joe Biden. It was only the second time that music by a contemporary African American composer had been selected to be part of the repertoire performed at a presidential inauguration ceremony. And in June, as part of a digitally streamed concert on the first Juneteenth that was an official U.S. national holiday, J’Nai Bridges and the Harlem Chamber Players gave the world premiere performance of his concert aria Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust), a retelling of the Tulsa Race Massacre to mark its centenary. The concert was even previewed on CNN which rarely covers music outside the commercial mainstream.

It was definitely time to catch up with Dr. Hailstork to talk about his life in music. His passion for making music stretches all the way back to his childhood when he sang as a boy chorister. While growing up, he sang his way through all the parts, eventually singing bass. After he embarked on his path as a composer, he never lost his love for the human voice and for melody.

“Choral music is so rich,” Hailstork exclaimed during our conversation over Zoom. “It is my favorite medium.” And Hailstork’s music has been treasured by choirs for half a century. He received his first significant compositional accolade, the Ernest Bloch Award, for his choral composition Mourn Not the Dead in 1971, the same year he received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Ironically, only a few years earlier, as he confessed during our talk, he didn’t even know what the words “graduate school” meant. After he had completed his Bachelor’s degree at Howard University, he went to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, not really sure about what his next steps would be.

Hailstork, however, took a very different path from most composers who pursued academic degrees during that time, eschewing what he described as the “plink, plank, and plunk” of the avant-garde music of his contemporaries. And for many years, his music was overlooked as he acknowledged. “It used to be a lot more difficult for lyrical types like me to have a place, just to be recognized, to be heard.”

Throughout this time, Hailstork, nevertheless, held his aesthetic ground, settling in Virginia and teaching for decades at Old Dominion University in Norfork while composing a stunning output of chamber music, solo piano and organ pieces, as well as many formidable orchestral works including four symphonies, in addition to writing numerous works for chorus. But while he is clear that he wants his music to be “a continuation rather than a breaking away from” the Western classical tradition, he very clearly has his own voice which has been enriched by his immersion into African American spirituals.

“I do worship the spirituals,” he explained at one point. “They’re gorgeous melodies and they’re very useful, and also I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also. I decided that Dvořák was right, and that’s what I wanted to do and I tried to work them in.”

The result of Hailstork’s idiosyncratic amalgamation of these two traditions has yielded an extraordinarily rich compositional language which also serves his other goal, “to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.”


Sounds Heard: Lawrence Brownlee and Damien Sneed—Spiritual Sketches

The spirituals that have been sung around the world are Negroid to be sure, but so full of musicians’ tricks that Negro congregations are highly entertained when they hear their old songs so changed. They never use the new style songs, and these are never heard unless perchance some daughter or son has been off to college and returns with one of the old songs with its face lifted, so to speak.

—Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934)

[There was a] famous teacher and scholar of Vienna to whom I had come to seek guidance in the mastery of Bach’s style…. I vividly remember his astonishment on hearing me sing some Aframerican folk songs; an astonishment caused by the spiritual affinity of my songs with the spirit and style of the great German master. “But you have it all there,” he assured me; “it is the same language.”

—Roland Hayes, My Songs (1948)

One of my favorite corners of the compositional world is and always has been the spiritual arrangement—and not in spite of Hurston’s complaint (and others like it), but, in a way, because of it. Maybe it’s because my own provenance (suburban, Catholic, white) is so far removed from the proper milieu, but it was always the game of masks involved in dressing up the vernacular for the concert hall that made spiritual arrangements so fascinating to me. There’s a grain of truth in what Hurston writes: spiritual arrangements are, in one sense, neither here nor there. But musically, it’s at that disconnected point—where stylistic reference becomes as much a choice as a necessity, and where authenticity is just one possible concern among many—that, for me anyway, things often start to get really interesting.

Spiritual Sketches, the new recording by tenor Lawrence Brownlee, is, in essence, a showcase for singing; and Brownlee’s singing is worth showcasing, a fiery, flexible bel canto tenor that soars without strain and burbles through ornamentation with comfortable flair. But it was the arrangements, by pianist Damien Sneed (who also performs), that really caught my ear. Written especially for this project, Sneed’s spiritual settings update the usual language—“There Is a Balm in Gilead” as contemporary R&B ballad, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” as angular funk—while still making some deft plays within the genre’s complicated weave of influence and stylization.

Some of the most fun things about the album, in fact, are those moments where Sneed acknowledges that the arranging of spirituals has acquired a history almost as long as those of the spirituals themselves: “Come By Here, Good Lord” echoes Hall Johnson’s brighter, bouncier settings; “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” channels the Romantic harmonies of Harry T. Burleigh’s Gilded Age settings; “Down by the Riverside” has a thumping swing reminiscent of the legendary Mildred Falls, Mahalia Jackson’s longtime accompanist. Even the most predictable reharmonizations—the spiritual tradition is multilayered enough that even the stylizations can be traditional—get enough of an extra flourish to freshen the standards while honoring them. And Sneed has the taste to get out of the way when the mood requires; his version of “All Day, All Night” achieves a deep, potent simplicity.

The sheer adaptability of spirituals has been viewed as either distressing (e.g. Hurston) or empowering (e.g. Hayes), but I think the repertoire’s survival is a testament in itself. We keep coming back to them; they keep coming back to us. Sneed’s résumé is a very 21st-century one, encompassing gospel, jazz, classical, pop, and art in equal measure, but, as in the 20th and even the 19th centuries, the spiritual style proves inspiringly flexible enough to pull it all in. The language changes; but, like Hayes said, it’s still the same language. You have it all there.