The Art of Spirituals Recalls the Hope in a Grim History of Injustice

March 19, 2013

The Adelphians, Dorians, and soloists perform, 7:30p.m., Friday, April 12

Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (audio)

TACOMA, Wash. – African-American spirituals can no longer be sung as they were 150 years ago on American plantations in the South.

The complex textures and improvisation of the spirituals as they were originally sung were all but forgotten in the decades after slavery was abolished, as African Americans moved on to newer genres of music, such as gospel, that did not call to mind the horrors and deprivations of the past.

When spirituals are sung today, it is mostly through the creative reimaginings of composers and arrangers. A diverse selection of these can be experienced at an upcoming Jacobsen Series concert, The Art of Spirituals.

The concert, featuring the Adelphian Concert Choir and guests, will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 12, in Schneebeck Concert Hall on campus. Ticket information is below.

The Adelphians, conducted by Steven Zopfi, will be joined by the Dorian Singers, conducted by Anne Lyman, as well as by Gwynne Kuhner Brown on piano, mezzo soprano Dawn Padula, and soprano Marlette Buchanan. Buchanan, from Pacific Lutheran University’s Department of Music, will be returning to familiar territory. As a college student, she sang at Fisk University in Tennessee with the prestigious Fisk Jubilee Singers, who first popularized spirituals on the concert stage more than 100 years ago.

Gwynne Brown, Puget Sound assistant professor of music history and music theory, will offer comments about each piece. She says that 20th-century composers and arrangers framed and reinvented the spirituals for concert use in a variety of ways.

“This recital will reflect that diversity, with settings for solo voice and piano ranging from stripped-down styles to the virtuosic, and including a generous sampling of choral styles. The program will begin with intimate and little-known arrangements by Eva Jessye of Porgy and Bess fame and end with Moses Hogan’s electrifying choral setting of The Battle of Jericho.”

The evening’s program will include the following songs and arrangements:

            Cantata, by John Carter
            Lis’en to de Lam’s, by John Cornelius II
            My Spirituals (selections), by Eva Jessye
            Choral works by William L. Dawson, Moses Hogan, and others

“It’s no wonder that composers have been inspired to work with the spirituals,” Brown said. “These songs are a unique blend of European-American Protestant hymnody with West African rhythms and practices like call and response. And then, beyond the sonic beauty, there’s what the spirituals communicate. It is hard not to be moved by these expressions of perseverance in the face of seemingly intractable injustice. These songs were deeply meaningful to their creators, but they have also spoken powerfully through the years to abolitionists, civil rights activists, and countless others.”

The Jacobsen Series, named in honor of Leonard Jacobsen, former chair of the piano department at Puget Sound, has been running since 1984. The Jacobsen Series Scholarship Fund awards annual music scholarships to outstanding student performers and scholars. The fund is sustained entirely by season subscribers and ticket sales.

FOR TICKETS order online at, or call Wheelock Information Center at 253.879.6013 to purchase with a credit card. Admission is $12.50 for the general public; $8.50 for seniors (55+), students, military, and Puget Sound faculty and staff. The concert is free for current Puget Sound students. Group ticket rates are available for parties of 10 or more by calling 253.879.3555 in advance. Any remaining tickets will be available at the door.

For directions and a map of the campus:
For accessibility information please contact or 253.879.3236.

Press photos of the Adelphian Concert Choir can be downloaded from:

Photos on page: Top right: Boys and girls hum a spiritual at the United Cannergy, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America meeting in Bristow, Oklahoma (1940); Top left: African Americans at church in George (1899 or 1900); Above left: Choir and organ of Fisk University, Nashville Tennessee (1899?) All photos from Library of Congress.

Tweet this: The Art of Spirituals, Jacobsen concert with Adelphians, guests @univpugetsound, Fri., April 12, 7:30 p.m.

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