Regarding Boston Camerata’s forthcoming show, “WE’LL BE THERE! American Spirituals Black and White 1800-1900,” at Longy on November 6th, we put some questions to Anne Azéma, Artistic Director and Joel Cohen Music Director Emeritus. A virtual interview follows.
FLE: You are clearly delighted to be telling BMInt readers about giving live performances again?
Anne Azéma: What’s a deeper word than delighted? I was almost overwhelmed emotionally in September, performing solo, live in the Netherlands, Italy, and Slovenia for actual human beings rather than cameras and microphones. Now, preparing for the first in-person Boston Camerata performance since March 2020, I think we will all remain stable and standing! But the emotion in November is no less profound, for the entire cast, I believe. It’s a joy to be back.
You and Camerata are returning to your American vein.
Yes, I think it’s vitally important to bring the story of American spiritual song forward in time, to the threshold of recorded sound and living memory. And by advancing into the 19th century, when sources of Black music begin to be available, we can more equitably broaden our vision of American music and American values. That’s a big priority.
What sources do you consult?
We of course continue with some of our favorite early songbooks, such as the Sacred Harp and the Social Harp. We’ve also been working hard with early African-American prints. The earliest Black hymn book appears, without music, in Philadelphia in 1801. The English Protestant texts within are shared with other denominations, but the resonances must have been so different for the Black singers and congregants. The first song text begins, “The voice of Free Grace cries, ‘Escape to the mountains’.” What an image 64 years before the Emancipation Proclamation!
Joel Cohen: And then, you have the many pamphlets and songbooks intended for mid-nineteenth camp meetings, where both Whites and Blacks participated. So many of those songs have a call-and-response format, which scholars consider to be very characteristic of African-American spirituals. We think, along with historian of religion Steven Marini, that there is a lot of back-and-forth mutual influence and interdependence in the revivalist repertoire. And much beautiful music as well.
How else do you locate specifically Black songs?
AA: There are harmonized song arrangements late in the 19th century from Black colleges. However, Joel and I were particularly fascinated by an earlier collection, “Revival Hymns & Plantation Melodies, Cincinnati, 1882 , “Revival Songs and Plantation Hymns,” of ca. 1878 where a team of formerly enslaved women notated the tunes. We think that’s the earliest source of Black music compiled with the community itself.
JC: And another important source is historical memory from oral tradition. One keynote song in our November 6th program, “Roll Call,” evoking the memory of the Civil War, comes from an erstwhile “White” songbook, “The Revivalist,” of 1868. But when I sang the tune to the Honorable Milton Wright, who has been collaborating closely with Camerata as we build the production, he immediately produced a variant, from his childhood memory as a spiritual singer. There is so much to discover and to uncover!
Which is not to say that you will be abandoning the hurdy-gurdy in future programs…
AA: This show fits surprisingly into a continuity with the past, just as in our earlier programs. For instance, one of the excellent Black spiritual songs from that just-mentioned collection derives from an 18th-century English ballad about a pirate on the high seas. And so we’ll perform that melody in two — actually, three — ways.
JC: One can even trace some of this material much farther back. Camerata has often performed “Judicii Signum,” a medieval song about the Last Judgement, in various 12th– and 13th -century permutations. The original text is attributed to Saint Augustine, Bishop of Numidian North Africa in the fifth century, and the tune was widely sung in medieval Spain and Provence, persisting to this day in Catalonia. Well, surprise, it has also migrated to the New World, and we are planning to present several American versions—White and Black—to our live audience. With such an extended paternity, across three continents, the lesson becomes clear: it’s our common, shared humanity that is thus expressed and preserved across the centuries.
Anne: And, beyond this discussion of sources and editions, and beyond the labels of “early” and “modern,” we have with us a group of dynamic, deeply committed singers and instrumentalists ready to perform this vitally engaging repertoire. Please come celebrate with us this return to the world of live music!