In this guest post by Dr. Stan Engebretson and Prof. Volker Hempfling, editors of Carus-Verlag‘s new collection, Hallelujah: Gospels and Spirituals for Mixed Choir, we explore the difference between gospel and spirituals in their development and in musical form.
Powerful voices full of emotion and moving intensity — that’s what comes to mind when we think of gospel music. And “Amazing Grace” is certainly one of the first songs we think of. It’s a song that spread beyond Christian churches to become famous as a protest song against slavery and as a hymn sung by human rights activists. “I once was lost, but now am found.” With the Christian idea of redemption, the song expresses a confident belief in liberation, the central theme of gospel music. But paradoxically, this song, which many people regard as the quintessence of American gospel music, was actually written by the former captain of a slave ship, John Newton. When he escaped from a storm at sea in 1748, he saw his salvation as divine providence and fundamentally transformed his life in the following years, after a while giving up his trade completely, becoming a clergyman, and even campaigning against slavery. His song, “Amazing Grace,” became extremely successful and was later adopted by the African-American spiritual and gospel community, performed by such artists as Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and the Harlem Gospel Choir.
But what makes a song a gospel song, and how does it differ from a spiritual?
As early as the 17th century, songs sung in unison developed in the Southern slave communities from a unique blend of African tunes, rhythms and styles paired with early Christian hymns. Handed down in aural tradition, these pieces came to be known as “spirituals,” a title derived from Ephesians 5:19, where the faithful were exhorted to sing “spiritual songs.” Many songs feature Old Testament heroes such as Moses, Elijah and Daniel, whose vivid stories showed strength in times of conflict. Other common themes are freedom from bondage and hope for a better life ahead free of pain and suffering.
A part of daily life in slave communities, spirituals took on many forms, including work songs in a “call and response” style, where a soloist leads the call while the chorus responds; slower music in reflective styles, such as “Deep River”; and bright, animated works of celebration sung during praise meetings. Although originally sung in unison, spirituals evolved from the 1870s on, becoming popular as arranged choral pieces pioneered by the groundbreaking Fisk Jubilee Singers, as well as master composers ranging from Harry T. Burleigh to Moses Hogan.
Gospel music developed much later along a parallel track. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, many people migrated north into urban centers. By the early 20th century the influence of blues and jazz became popular in this new world, leading to the development of gospel music with instrumental accompanies to choral lines, sometimes featuring elaborate solos. Traditional gospel often paired texts from the New Testament or non-Biblical sources with simple harmonic progressions, occasionally including lowered thirds, indicative of the influence of the blues. Contemporary gospel expanded the vocabulary of the genre into jazz harmonies and added brass, woodwinds and organ on top of the original piano accompaniment. Today gospel continues to evolve into newer versions under the influence of other contemporary genres like rock, hip-hop and rap, while piano gospel has also remained a signature style in its own right.
Carus-Verlag‘s new collection, Hallelujah: Gospels and Spirituals for Mixed Choir, contains 30 songs aimed at choirs that want to explore this repertoire in a variety of styles and levels of difficulty. In addition to popular classics like “Amazing Grace,” “Deep River,” “Go Down, Moses,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the collection revives classics from the genres’ early days and includes several arrangements commissioned specially for this edition. With settings that are well-suited for many uses in concerts and church services, the collection serves as a good introduction for choirs with little previous experience with this repertoire.
Dr. Stan Engebretson (photo: left) came to Washington in 1990 as the Director of Choral Studies at George Mason University and Director of Music as the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. In 2005 he became the Artistic Director of the National Philharmonic Chorale.
In addition to his focus on choral work with various groups, including the Kölner Kantorei (which he founded in 1968 and directed until 2015), Prof. Volker Hempfling (photo: right) is much in demand internationally as a conductor and lecturer. Numerous concert invitations take him throughout Germany and abroad. He regularly serves as a jury member at leading choral competitions.