Penn Library

Marian Anderson: A Life in Song

Guarding the Flame:
Spirituals in Recital

The 1861 publication of "Go Down Moses," the first African American spiritual to appear in print with its accompanying melody, heralded a new era for these folksongs. Previously transmitted only orally, the spiritual gained popularity in the late nineteenth century through both published collections and performance. As early as 1871 the Jubilee Singers from Nashville's Fisk University included spirituals in their concert programs, which served to introduce them to white audiences as well as the international community. It was, in fact, the Jubilee Singers, and later the Hampton Singers, from the Hampton Institute in Virginia, who were the inspiration for such composers as R. Nathaniel Dett, Clarence Cameron White, and Harry T. Burleigh to publish their own arrangements of spiritual melodies.

In the first decades of the twentieth century spirituals became a standard part of the repertory for concert artists and were popularized by African American performers, among them Roland Hayes who was, according to the singer herself, Marian Anderson's "inspiration." Ms. Anderson was acquainted with Hayes, as well as with a number of composers who published spiritual arrangements, including Dett, Burleigh, Hall Johnson, and Florence Price. Ms. Anderson's vast collection of spirituals, in both published and manuscript form, testifies to the central rôle they played in her development as a concert artist.

Following the tradition established by Roland Hayes and other African American singers who preceded her on the concert stage, Marian Anderson concluded each of her recitals with a group of spirituals in arrangements that often came to be recognized as "classic." That many reported being moved to tears by her renditions of these works is one of the more striking aspects of their reception history. "In her, the spiritual takes on entirely new joy," one critic remarked, while another commented that her performances of spirituals catch "as possibly no one else can their simplicity of pure belief and deep emotion." Concert-goers will readily recognize that the inclusion of spirituals on recital programs is a tradition that continues today with succeeding generations of African American vocalists, such as Jessye Norman, William Warfield, and Kathleen Battle.

While Marian Anderson's repertory contained well over one hundred spirituals, she clearly favored the arrangements of Harry T. Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, and Hall Johnson, whose names appeared most often on her concert programs. Exhibited here is a representative recital program along with Ms. Anderson's personal copies of the music that she used in preparing for her performance.

Examples of Spirituals from Marian Anderson's Music Collection

Table of Contents Next Panel

Last update: Tuesday, 28-Nov-2017 11:31:48 EST
Send mail concerning this page to: