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Amplifying the Black composers who brought spirituals to classical music

Castle of our Skins cofounder Ashleigh Gordon (center) partnered with the Gardner Museum to explore the impact of this American sacred music.Bearwalk Cinema/Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Violist Ashleigh Gordon didn’t grow up in the Black church. Spirituals weren’t part of the sonic landscape that nourished her as a young musician. And when she cofounded Castle of our Skins, the Boston collective that celebrates Black artistry in all its forms, she wasn’t drawn to performing spirituals either. In fact, she avoided them.

“I didn’t necessarily want to only program ... something that is very overtly known and synonymous with Black identity,” she said in a Zoom interview. It was more important to focus on aspects of Black art and music-making that got less attention, she thought.

But this changed after Castle of Our Skins participated in “Breath and Imagination,” a 2018 theater project with Front Porch Collective that honored Boston-based tenor Roland Hayes, one of the first Black singers to record art song repertoire in the early 20th century as well as a passionate advocate for spirituals.

A deep dive into that material helped Gordon appreciate the history, while also seeing common themes between spirituals and contemporary work by African diasporic composers, she said. “Now, understanding so much about ancestral power and legacy, and their universality as it relates to protest and healing … [Spirituals] have stood the test of time for a reason and should be celebrated as such.”


This spring, Gordon and other Castle artists are collaborating with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on “Witness: Spirituals and the Classical Music Tradition,” a four-episode video series exploring the history and legacy of spirituals in the concert music world. Each episode focuses on one song. The second video, which centers on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” releases Friday.

Castle of Our Skins is performing classical works that borrow from spirituals.Bearwalk Cinema/Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

A partnership between the museum and Castle of our Skins had been in the works since before the pandemic. After live events were canceled, Gordon started working with curator of music George Steel on a virtual series devoted to composer Florence Price. But that fell through because of complications securing the music rights. So Steel instead suggested a series tied with the museum’s copy of the 1914 collection “Afro-American Folksongs,” a volume Isabella Stewart Gardner kept on her bookshelf, featuring arrangements of spirituals by the composer Harry T. Burleigh. Gordon jumped onboard, introducing the curator to numerous artists and collaborators such as Nedelka Prescod and pianist Kyle P. Walker.


The spirituals Gardner heard performed in the Tapestry Room circa 1921 barely resemble the roots of the tradition, or the renditions offered by Castle of our Skins 100 years later. For one, the performers — who gave Gardner the book — were a wealthy white couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy. (The painter John Singer Sargent, a friend of Gardner’s, advised her that their “voices were quite small.”)

American concert audiences had been introduced to the tradition starting in the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an ensemble originally organized to raise money for the newly established and financially vulnerable Fisk University, a historically Black school in Nashville. The Fisk singers’ spirituals put a new gloss on what had been an entirely aural tradition, said choral conductor Anthony Trecek-King, who served as the artistic director of the Boston Children’s Choir between 2007 and 2020. “They concertized it. You apply 19th-century romantic harmony to it ... and they would sing these arrangements.”

In the ensuing years, Black composers such as Burleigh, Jester Hairston, Margaret Bonds, William Dawson, and R. Nathaniel Dett arranged multitudes of spirituals or drew on the material for original compositions. (Burleigh famously introduced Antonin Dvorak to Black American music, which the Czech composer drew on for his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.”)


”Whenever I talk to other conductors about spirituals, I always say go back to Burleigh, go back to Dawson, before you approach the modern composers, so you have an understanding of where it came from,” said Trecek-King, who grew up attending a Black church where parishioners would often burst into song.

Gordon’s relationship with those forefathers of concert spirituals isn’t without complications. “Around the turn of the 20th century, elevating toward whiteness was thought an advancement,” she explained, citing a quote by Dett where he describes the themes of Negro spirituals as “rough timbers” that could and should be refined by applying Western European principles of music theory. “As though there’s something rough about my hair, or my lips, or something like that,” Gordon said.

She sees potential pitfalls in taking music based in a Black lived experience and slotting it into a white, Eurocentric art form. But she also sees more positive and productive possibilities. “I see it as a way of injecting pride, and wanting it to be seen as any other work of art that you would have in a place of pride.”

Castle of Our Skins violinist Gabriela Diaz performed at the Gardner.Bearwalk Cinema/Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

As for why spirituals proved to be such fertile ground for Black composers, Trecek-King has a few ideas. “African-American composers were limited in what genres they could actually go into,” he said of these earlier generations. “Obviously you want your music to be played, but going the instrumental route was more difficult. Choral music and art songs were a lot easier to get performed.”


Dawson’s life can be seen as a case study in this. A graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, he later headed the music school there and piloted its choir to international renown with plenty of spiritual arrangements. Lesser known is his “Negro Folk Symphony,” which was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski in 1934 and has remained relatively obscure ever since. A 1992 recording by the Detroit Symphony, one of three in existence, caught Steel’s ear.

“I thought that it’s not possible, even for a profoundly gifted composer, to jump from writing choral music to writing such an incredibly accomplished piece for orchestra. There has to be more instrumental music,” he said.

Steel pored through Dawson’s papers at Emory University and saw that Dawson had written a sonata for solo violin, also arranging the piece’s slow movement for piano trio and string quartet. Because the music only existed in manuscript form, Steel contacted Dawson’s family, and the museum commissioned a modern performing edition for Castle of our Skins. It can be heard on the first “Witness” video, released last month.

“It’s clearly flavored by spirituals. You don’t have to look closely at the melody to see that there are melodic gestures that are really consonant with ‘Deep River,’” Steel said over the phone. “But it’s a totally new piece.”


Spiritual arrangements are still a mainstay of choral concerts outside the Black church, and Trecek-King moves that they’re often unjustly treated as “light” fare. “Putting it at the end of the concert actually does a disservice to the spiritual,” he said. “You have to think of it as the sacred music of Black people in the United States of America. It is such an important thing, and it needs to be treated with care.”


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A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her @knitandlisten.