Monthly Archives: September 2008

American Spirituals, Book Two

1. Jesus, Master, O discover

2. When the stars begin to fall

3. Little David, play on your harp

Some spirituals have been called black, some white, and while there are distinguishing characteristics, the spiritual as a genre rises above race to an American unity. The characteristics are, in fact, so intermingled that it is often difficult to determine which group is doing the characterizing.

Most of the music first saw the light of day among the folk of the British Isles, before it sailed to the New World and established new varieties. It was eventually displaced from the cities by more traditional European hymnody, cultured and tonal. The now American-incubated songs were simpler, the texts quaint and outspokenly pious. The melodies were modal and square, the harmonies sharp-elbowed, and the singing was often riotously embellished. These tunes were more suited for the revival than the liturgy, and rather than sung in grand sanctuaries, they were more comfortably shouted and wailed from the frontiers of both geography and community.

Spirituals would not be tamed—could not be tamed and remain spirituals, in fact—and so they survived outside of the cities with blacks and whites who lived on the edge or in the gut of the States. They sang these back and forth to each other for a century or two, then invented new ones and sang them back and forth. They since have been sharing these treasures, all grown into as many variants as there are counties, with us.

The music has survived commercial denaturing and homogenizing, and, it is fervently to be hoped, arranging for such hi-falutin’ instruments as the violoncello and the pianoforte. So, American Spirituals, Book Two. Written for Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Principal cellist Anne Martindale Williams and pianist Paul Jones (Music Director of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church and the engine behind these projects), this follows the first book of American Spirituals written for David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra (go here for excerpts of David’s recording, tracks 16, 17, 18).

Thomas Olivers was converted from roustabout to evangelist by George Whitefield, and he composed, among other hymns, Helmsley. He admitted, though, that he first heard someone whistling something like it on the street. He then sculpted it into this, normally known as the music to “Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending.” Being an American and a Lutheran and an innocent concerning English church music, I never knew the tune at all until my late 20s, when I “discovered” it in one of George Pullen Jackson’s incomparable chronicles of spirituals. Philadephians used this tune for “Jesus, Master” when baptizing in the Schuylkill River. They knocked the notes around a bit from what Olivers had assembled off the street, and here it’s changed a bit more.

Jesus, Master, O discover
Pleasure in us, now we stand
On this bank of Schuylkill river
To obey thy great command.
Pleasure in us,
Pleasure in us,
Pleasure in us,
Who obey thy great command.

“My Lord, what a mournin’!” is closer to the truth of the matter when the stars begin to fall than the sweet “My Lord, what a mornin’,” but both blacks and whites squeeze emotional essence from the sudden realization of salvation’s power. Salvation, however, is always coupled with judgment, and that’s when the stars fall. This arrangement both conflates and alters black and white versions.

My Lord, what a mournin’!
My Lord, what a
My Lord, what a
When the stars begin to fall!
I think I hear my brother say:
Call the nations, great and small,
I look on God’s right hand
When the stars begin to fall.

I arranged “Little David, Play on Your Harp” a while back and have coveted an opportunity to revisit it. Some versions of this tune are so wildly unlike each other as to be hardly recognizable as siblings. With this one, I confess that I’m not sure where some words might land, as the music started to take on a mind of its own, and I was reluctant to stand in its way. Here are two out of innumerable possible verses:

Little David, play on your harp, halleluia.
Little David, play on your harp, hallelu.
David was a shepherd boy,
He killed Goliath and shouted for joy.

Little David, play on your harp, halleluia.
Little David, play on your harp, hallelu.
Joshua was the son of Nun,
He never would quit till his work was done.

CD and sheet music published by Paul Jones Music in the collection Sacred Music for Cello.

Page one

Vespers made possible by…

Since the commissioning for the premiere of Vespers is due entirely to the unflagging efforts of Joan and Bob from Piffaro, it had been only in the back of my mind where the money came from for all this. Mostly I was worried about composing. And, since the commissioning for the recording of Vespers is due entirely to the unflagging efforts of Joan and Bob from Piffaro, it had been only in the back of my mind where the money came from for all this. Mostly I was worried about composing. And, of course, about not repeating myself.

Having applied for grants before, I know how much work it can be. This makes my appreciation for Piffaro even greater. They went to the Philadelphia Music Project and others, who decided to support the premiere. Then PMP together with the Presser Foundation launched the Premiere Recording Program, and for the recording I was fortunate to be included in the very first round of grants, along with other groups recording works of Andrea Clearfield, James Primosch, and Bernard Rands. I’m very grateful for all of this support.

(On the press release for the recording grant my name is spelled Kyle, but if I wasn’t used to that by third grade I’d never get used to it. Here’s the scoop: Kyle is Scotch-Irish and means inlet as far as I can tell from looking at maps, and although I have Scotch-Irish (and Polish and English) blood in me from my father’s side, Kile comes from my mother’s side, which is all German, which must’ve spelled it Keil over there, and it means wedge and there’s a hilarious German saying which is something like: to split a bigger stump you need a bigger wedge: which has, you know, always meant a lot to me as I’m sure you can imagine, and besides for Germans that really is a hilarious saying, believe me. So it’s Kile.)

Not our house

Well, we didn’t know until three weeks before the scheduled recording if the grant application would be approved, but Joan and Bob said they’d re-mortgage their houses to do this if necessary. I think I mumbled, “Uh, yeah, me too,” when they said that, but don’t tell Jackie. Their strong support for the music, and probably the wonderful reviews of the premiere, carried the day with the grants panel (as well as being a continual inspiration to me). So, all our mortgage rates are staying put, and all our bankers lost out on closing costs.

But we did paint our house two years ago, and with new plantings out front it has curb appeal, I think they call it.