Stylistic vs. Stylized
Disturbing Trends in the Performance of Slave Era Spirituals
We've seen it in the fashion industry for years. Some designer in a remote part of the world announces platform shoes are coming back. Soon, everyone is wearing platforms, whether they're comfortable and safe or not. Why do we do this? Are we, as a society, completely unable to make sensible and well informed choices on our own? It seems music is not immune either. Performance 'fads' sweep the music scene just as surely. Let me explain...
Recent comments by well intended and (we believe) well informed authorities (the well respected Andre Thomas included) have indicated the following: traditional performances of slave era 'spirituals' have been at tempos elevated well above what are believed to be authentic and historic. These comments have produced a small scale renaissance in this genre, not unlike the 'original instrument' movement in the performance of baroque music that began in the 1940's and 50's. Enlightenment is a wonderful thing. As musicians we welcome information that will help our performances more fully reflect the mood and experience intended by the composer, or in this case, the originating ethnic group. Our culture is enriched as we broaden the palette from which we draw.
Now that we've had our sensibilities tickled, let's take a cold glass of water in the face and look at what we're doing from an artistic standpoint. Simple research into historic performance practice does not, I mean, DOES NOT warrant the retrospective 're-arrangement' of music now holding a traditional and historic place of its own. An arrangement is not an historic representation of fact. An arrangement is a 'point in time' interpretation, a stylized view, a cultural vision of history, right or 'wrong', that exists as an entity of its own, discreet and separate from the original form it represents. The existing body of work needs to be given the same historic, cultural and ethnic consideration that the original is being given.
The arrangements of William L. Dawson, Jester Hairston, etc. reflect a 'stylized' view of slave era spirituals. They popularized a neglected arena of American music through creative and attractive 'packaging' that has an appeal far beyond the original music. To apply current theories of historic performance to these arrangements is as ludicrous as performing the Stokowski orchestral arrangement/transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue on original baroque instruments. Of course, there are those that would say that the Stokowski arrangement is ludicrous on its own. That's another discussion entirely. Assaulting an audience with a coma-inducing performance of Dawson's "Soon Ah Will be Done" is inexcusable. I can guarantee you, had that particular arrangement debuted at the suggested 'authentic' tempo, we wouldn't be hearing it today. It doesn't make musical sense. It doesn't make historic sense. It's not fun to listen to. It doesn't sound like tired slaves. It sounds like musicians who didn't do their homework. Nobody wants to hear these classic arrangements performed like this.
If you've been sucked in by this new trend, take heart. Church choirs, community choirs, high school choirs, everybody, it would seem, is guilty of at least one infraction. Even some of the brightest stars are struggling with this issue. Anton Armstrong of St. Olaf fame is guilty of at least one rather frightening offense in this area. The struggle is quite obvious in his schizophrenic performances of Dawson's "Soon Ah Will be Done", where the chorus is reduced to a funereal dirge while the verses are performed at a sprightly 1950's tempo. So, I guess if Dr. Armstrong is susceptible, then the lesser of us can be forgiven.
A whole collection of more 'authentic' spirituals are now available from publishers. If you want to sing slow spirituals, purchase one of these new arrangements. At least you'll get the tempo right. The question of 'historic authenticity' is probably still open for discussion, but the catchy gospel piano accompaniments are worthy of their own recognition. Study the score carefully. Perform in a manner that makes musical sense. The reality - if it sounds bad, no matter how 'authentic', no one will listen (for very long, anyway). If you plan to pull a piece out of the archives, remember that piece has a history and tradition of its own, no matter how 'incorrect' it may be. The bottom line is the music. Be a critical listener and do the 'right' thing.
In summary, accurate stylistic performances are always welcome. Don't try to apply stylistic practices to already stylized music. It's like hanging a Mondrian in the frame intended for a Rembrandt! (eeEEOOoo!, as my daughter would say...)