Program Notes: Spirituals

Updated: Sep 13, 2020

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This week’s program notes: Spirituals!

The Chorale, like many choirs throughout the world, has a tradition of ending their concerts with arrangements of the songs of the 19th century slaves, a genre better known as Spirituals. Spirituals are religious songs associated with African-American slaves, and thought to derive from the combination of European hymns and African musical elements by slaves.

What’s on this concert?

Our first song comes from Harry T. Burleigh, an African-American classical composer, arranger, and professional singer known for his baritone voice. The first black composer instrumental in developing characteristically American music, Burleigh made black music available to classically trained artists both by introducing them to spirituals and by arranging them in a more classical form. My Lord, What a Mornin’ is one of his more popular settings, and a favorite of the Chorale.


William L. Dawson


Via FolkSongIndex.com: Ezekiel Saw the Wheel began its life as an African American spiritual. This song is based on a passage from Old Testament in which Ezekiel, a prophet living in exile in Babylon during the 500s BC, was sent a vision from God.

15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. 16 This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. 17 As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not change direction as the creatures went. 18 Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. 20 Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21 When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. (Ezekiel 15-21)

Moses Hogan

Our final two selections are by the late and great Moses Hogan, who continued the traditions of Burleigh and Dawson in his short life. Hogan was an American internationally renown composer and arranger of choral music. He was a pianist, conductor, and arranger and was best known for his settings of Negro spirituals. We are singing his arrangement of Ride On, King Jesus and Battle of Jericho. Ride On, King Jesus is a lively setting of the traditional spiritual, different from the others in that it has a commanding piano accompaniment.


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