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Inspirational: My Lord What a Mornin'

The MHS Review 409, VOL. 12, NO.13• 1988

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William Zagorski


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I sat stymied for a long time searching for words appropriate to this wonderful release. Your hearing of it will, I hope, show you how short of the mark I fell. Rarely in my experience as a compulsive collector have all the elements of a record­ed performance converged so beautifully to produce a musical experience as revelatory, thrilling, and satisfying as is found here.

This program of spirituals, lovingly transcribed, arranged, and, in some cases, composed anew, by H.T. Burleigh (1866-1949), Roland Hayes (1887-1977), and Hall Johnson (1888-1970), performed with eloquence and vitality by Charles Holland and Dennis Russell Davies, and captured on a clean, well-balanced recor­ding originally engineered by Aperto, pro­duces an effect which far exceeds the sum of its impressive parts. If you love art song in any of its manifestations, from Schubert Lieder through Ravel's and Poulenc's more contemporary masterpieces, you are already well attuned to the expressive vitality of this music. If "art song" is still new to you, these performances can pro­vide a fine initiation into its many wonders. Here you won't be burdened with having to correlate a translation as you listen. Everything is direct and immediate--the nuances of the poetry, the musical scan­sion, the diction of the singer can all be readily appreciated.

Listening to these performances, I could well hear why such diverse composers as Fredrick Delius (1862-1934) and Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), traveling in America near the turn of the century, held the "Negro" music they heard and studied in such high esteem. Its melodic and har­monic essence permeates Delius' Florida Suite (1888-1890), his opera Koanga (1897), and his huge tone poem Ap­palachia (1902). In Dvorak's case these in­fluences are far more subtle. Though he personally knew Henry Thacker Burleigh while living in New York in 1892, and fell strongly under the influence of his music, the Czech master chose to incoporate its essences so deeply into his personal musical language that to this very day a controversy still exists as to whether his American compositions contain Black and Indian material, or are merely pure Czech. My answer is that both statements are ab­solutely correct.

Like these two illustrious composers (Delius and Dvorak), Burleigh, Johnson, and Hayes were well trained in "classical" European musical techniques. Their com­bined mission, however, was to rescue a rich, oral folk tradition from the inevitable erosions of time, to fix it in notation in such a way as to capture, refine, and amplify its inimitable essence, and thereby to preserve and communicate a unique musical language down through the ages. This is far from mere "incorporation" and parallels the work of such famous musical ethnologists as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams in England, and of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly in Hungary.

As to whether these three Americans suc­ceeded, just listen to the piano figuration and harmonic changes under "Sister Mary Had-a But One Child" by Roland Hayes (so simple, yet so right that it would have delighted Schubert), or to the uncomplex and absolutely direct music of H.T. Burleigh's "Bye and Bye" as it poignantly supports its metaphorical text, or to the cumulative and haunting effect of each musical strophe in Hall Johnson's "Over Yonder." Tenor Charles Holland and conductor/pianist Dennis Russell Davies go straight to the heart of the matter. Syllable by syllable, word by word, phrase by phrase they create performances of energy, conviction, and eloquence befitting the music. Mr. Holland, who was 73 years old when he made this recording, was as a boy inspired, like the composer Roland Hayes, by a recording of Enrico Caruso. Too bad the venerable Italian maestro is not around to appreciate and enjoy this release.

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