Early American music has been a part of The Boston Camerata’s repertoire since the beginning of its recording history. It is with a vivid interest and joy that we have, over the years, included our own North American musical heritage in our concerts and recordings. A recent Harmonia Mundi recording, Free America! Songs of Resistance and Rebellion, appeared in 2019. We’ll Be There, their newest Americana program, featuring Black- and White- American spirituals from 1800-1900, comes to Trinity Church in Copley Square on October 21st at 5:00 and to the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury on October 22nd at 4:00. Information and tickets HERE.
We’ll Be There moves chronologically and focuses most intensely on the African American presence in the repertoire. The rewards of such work are great, but the challenges are mighty. Because of terrible social inequities and injustices, early written musical sources of Black songs, prior to the choir arrangements of the late 19th century, are far too few. Thus the few precious written songbooks, as well as the collaborative memory and ongoing oral tradition of the Black community provided sources of some of the deepest regenerative forces in American musical life. A program essay follows.
What do we find as we open the books, and hear the singing of our neighbors? The mutual influences, both textual and musical, between the White and Black communities, are omnipresent, both in anecdotal ways, and on profound, existential levels. The English Protestant hymn texts sung in congregations of both ethnicities are of course a common, unifying bond. But those same verses can take on different levels of meaning on the lips of believers of color. “The Pilgrims,” appearing in 1801, in the very first printed African American, text-only songbook, contains powerful, processional images of spiritual riches, superficially hidden by an aspect of material poverty. What a resonance for the freed Blacks and former enslaved people who sang it in Philadelphia, sixty-four years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation!
And when that same text re-appears, this time with notated music, in 1868, in an erstwhile White songbook, The Revivalist, we note the call-and-response format, ubiquitous in revivalist camp meetings, and so typical as well of African and African American group singing. What dimensions of such performance style are “European,” and what “African”? Let the scholars argue, as we turn to the music itself, entering wholeheartedly into the deeply felt expressivity of these songs.
Similarly, the crosscurrents in the powerful spiritual, “Roll Call,” seem to come from shared experiences — the military metaphors of the recently ended Civil War — and from the interethnic “camp meeting” style in which the leader or leaders exhort the congregation to a high level of enthusiasm. Our tune is drawn from songbook The Revivalist of 1868, but a still-living African American variant of it has been shared with us by the Honorable Milton Wright, whose knowledge of the Black musical heritage is unsurpassed.
The roots of some “American” songs are very ancient indeed. The text to the apocalyptic “Judicii Signum” is attributed to Saint Augustine, bishop of Numidian North Africa in the fifth century. The tune for it that we sing for you was omnipresent in Spain and Provence in the twelfth century. Astonishingly, the DNA of those poetic images, and of that melody, persist in many American spirituals about the Judgement Day, most extraordinarily perhaps in “Sinner Man,” in which the melodic cell d-f-a is recombined and varied over the harmonic pattern of a Renaissance ground bass, the passamezzo antico. Who are the parents of this beautiful, child of diverse origins? Insofar as we claim citizenship in the family of man, the infant is ours. Like so much of what we perform for you today, such a song is the fruit of our common awareness of mortality, and of our common, precious, fragile humanity. By Anne Azéma and Joel Cohen
A Short Production History
This program premiered at Longy School of Music of Bard College in November 2021 in the depths of COVID [reviewed HERE]. Then, as now, students of an eponymous course taught by our Artistic Director joined the pros onstage. In the fall of 2022, this program began its touring experience, and particularly in New York City. It is expected to tour domestically during the early weeks of 2025 in the US, during our 70th Anniversary Season.
October 21, 5 pm, Trinity Copley Square, Boston
October 22, 4 pm, 12th Baptist Church, Roxbury
Ticket link: https://bostoncamerata.org/performances/
Camerata is pleased to participate in the Card to Culture program by extending discounts to EBT, WIC, and ConnectorCare cardholders.