2019 Music Program Notes
Program A: The Burning House
Denial (Spiritual): Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
This spiritual is an intense lament that speaks of deep personal abandonment. The question is, why!? What circumstances caused this person to feel motherless? Is it a child or adult reflecting on the death of a parent? Is it a person who made a mistake in life and feels rejected by their parent? Is it a person who is physically and emotionally lost or separated from what is familiar and comfortable? One of the lines of text says, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long ways from home.” Africa means Motherland. The place that gave birth to all humanity. In a deeper historical context, perhaps for an enslaved person of African decent, this spiritual is a cry from a soul that has been expelled from earth. Such an intense feeling for Black Americans in today's world, most likely would be accompanied by feelings of denial. In other words, this is an experience for my ancestors. Not me.
Anger (Classical): Frederick Douglass Funeral March
Nathaniel Clark Smith was a bandleader in the Midwest. He wrote this piece in tribute to the former slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This piece of music has no lyrics. It is a funeral march set in g minor. The main theme is contrasted by the trio section written in B Flat Major. Listening to this, a person can almost hear the consistent heavy rhythmic footsteps of a marching band. It is normal in human behavior for a person to stamp their foot especially when they are angry. Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were good friends who held each other's intelligence in high esteem. Both men were ardent believers in the humanity promised in The Constitution and adamant about uniting the country of the United States. To lose a patriotic person like Frederick Douglass and know that the things he fought for have not fully come into fruition, all those who consider themselves Americans should be stamping their foot in angry outrage.
Bargaining (Jazz): Come Sunday
Duke Ellington wrote three sacred masses. In this particular selection from one of those masses, the text asks God to come down to earth and save humanity. “Dear Lord above, God almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through.” In making that request, the person acknowledges that there is some pain in life that they must endure. The text contains the line, “I don’t mind the gray skies cause they’re just clouds passing by and by.” Bargaining is always a conversation with God or the universe. It is a human questioning the trade off between how much suffering is necessary and when divine intervention begins.
Depression (Blues): Black, Brown and White Blues
Big Bill Broonzy wrote this piece in 1946. Due to its blunt lyrics, he could not find anyone who would record it until many years later. As a blues song, the verses fit right in with a genre of music that talks about struggle, trials and tribulations. If only the verses had been written and not the chorus, this song would not have been jarring for its day and time. The chorus of the song more overtly drives home the reason the person is struggling. “Now if you’re white, you’re right, and if you’re brown, stick around; but if you're black- Oh, brother, git back, git back, git back.” James Cone in his final writing The Cross and The Lynching Tree reminds us that by bluntly singing about the lived reality of racism and personal trauma, blues music neatly straddles the line between depression in having one's humanity denied and hope in having one's humanity realized.
Acceptance (Soul): People Get Ready
Curtis Mayfield had an uncanny ability to channel social turmoil and use it to drive his music. In the chaos of the 60’s and 70’s Curtis Mayfield emphasized the need for everyone to view each other as part of the human family. A particular lyric line of text in this piece points to that commonality by subtly making the claim that we as human beings are all part of one creation. “Have pity on those whose choices grow thinner. For there's no hiding place from the kingdom’s throne.” When we strip away our personal possessions, titles, egos, accomplishments and money, we are left with nothing but the soul of the human. It is in that naked space where we are forced to take an honest look at ourselves and come to a place of personal acceptance of our moral failings.
Faith (Gospel): Total Praise
Richard Smallwood is known for his most famous work Total Praise. Based on psalm 121:1 the music starts softly like the first glimmer of sunlight transitioning from dawn to daybreak on a clear morning. When the lines, “You are the source of my strength. You are the strength of my life.” are sung, the music gently soars to a roaring finish symbolizing the arrival of much needed and anticipated help. In Puccini’s opera Turandot, based off a Chinese fairy tale, the Islamic Prince Calif must answer three riddles in order to marry the beautiful Chinese Princess Turandot. If he answers incorrectly, Prince Calif will be beheaded. The first riddle is, “What dies each night but is reborn each day?” Prince Calif answers, “Hope.” Gospel music reminds us that no matter how dark our midnight is, no matter how long it lasts, hope for a new day with new possibilities is always just beyond where we can visibly see it. The only requirement is belief. Believing in something under such circumstances is always an act of faith.
Triage Concert Program Design
The 5 Stages of Grief
Psychologists have identified that there are five general stages of grief that humans go through. Four of those stages: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression do not occur in any specific order. The fifth, acceptance, is required work in order to move onward. For the purposes of this concert program/playlist, they have been placed in a specific order. Each stage of grief is tied to a specific style of Black Music. Specific pieces of music within those styles have been chosen in accordance with those stages of grief.
Faith-The 6th Stage of Grief
Black Americans have never survived in America without some form of faith. This is not necessarily a religious specific idea. Moving forward in life is always an act of faith. There is a dimension as human beings, where in coming out of a circumstance, we need to believe that improvement is possible if not in reach. The cultural religious life of Black Americans is a fertile ground for musical options illustrating this. I felt it was vital to add faith as the last stage of grief. If we do not believe things will be better, we as humans cease to move forward.
The Two Music Programs
There are two different programs each one stemming from the root of the same tree. We know that the forces of race and poverty in Milwaukee, erect limits on the kinds and types of life choices that a person can make. Each program was carefully crafted with a difference emphasis. The lyrics/text of each of these pieces of music matters. Program A, subtitled The Burning House, emphasizes racism as the dominant factor. The subtitle is inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Program B, subtitled The Riches of the World, emphasizes poverty as the dominant factor. The subtitle for program B refrences the struggle between material and non-material wealth.
The Music Continued
Program B: The Riches of the World
Denial (Spiritual): Deep River
Dr. Cornel West reminds us that in the history of Black America, “from the Middle Passage to baptism, water is always considered a point of no return.” Many spirituals that reference water are evidence of this fact. The spiritual Deep River opens with the line, “Deep River. My home is over Jordan.” The theology of this song is one about death. Crossing the river is a point of no return. The added adjective in the title of deep, implies that the human soul has had a vast number of experiences. It is not just about crossing into an afterlife but a reflection on the wisdom gained through a wealth of experiences in one's life. When tragedy strikes us as humans, it is not uncommon to seek the wisdom of our living elders and deceased ancestors and ask, “What did you know? How did you endure?” The experience of grief that leads people of African descent across the diaspora to ask those questions is preceded by denial.
Anger (Classical): Frederick Douglass Funeral March
Nathaniel Clark Smith was a bandleader in the Midwest. He wrote this piece in tribute to the former slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This piece of music has no lyrics. It is a funeral march set in g minor. The main theme is contrasted by the trio section written in B Flat Major. Listening to this, a person can almost hear the consistent rhythmic heavy footsteps of a marching band. It is normal in human behavior for a person to stamp their foot especially when they are angry. Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were good friends who held each other's intelligence in high esteem. Both men were ardent believers in the humanity promised in The Constitution and adamant about uniting the country of the United States. To lose a patriotic person like Frederick Douglass and know that the things he fought for have not fully come into fruition, all those who consider themselves Americans should be stamping their foot in angry outrage.
Bargaining (Jazz): St. James Infirmary
Cab Calloway was one of the first great Black Americans in the Big Band era of the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. He became famous for his piece Minnie the Moocher. Minnie is derived from another composition, St. James Infirmary. The singer of St James Infirmary goes to the mortuary to identify the body of his loved one. Upon finding her, he must grapple with her passing and wrestle with the fact that he too will also die in the future. “Let her go! Let her go!” The singer exclaims. “God bless her wherever she may be. She may search this whole wide world over. Never find a sweeter man as me.” In one particular version, Cab Calloway shouts, “hallelujah!” symbolizing that contemplating mortality is always a conversation with the divine.
Depression (Blues): Poor Man’s Blues
Bessie Smith was known as The Empress of the Blues. She was a composer, singer and performer. Bessie's celebrity status did not separate her from being and living among everyday people. Bessie's song, Poor Man's Blues, is reflective of a life lived as the people's diva of the Blues. The text of the lyrics in the third verse reads, “Please listen to my pleadin’ cause I can't stand these hard times long. They'll make an honest man do things that you know is wrong.” With this particular lyric, Bessie highlights that lingering economic depression can result in human desperation.
Acceptance (Soul): I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free
Written by pianist Dr. Billy Taylor for his daughter, this piece of music has been covered by many people over the years. The first singer to get ahold of it and make it popular was Nina Simone. As a central musical figure of the civil rights era and the 60’s and 70’s protest movements, Nina’s use of this song held great significance. In all her music Nina was an expert at acknowledging the unvarnished reality of what was happening to people. She did exactly that with this song while also projecting a hopeful possibility that all people could be reconciled to one another and live peaceably together. The text of the second verse illustrates that duality. “I wish I could share all the love that's in my heart. Remove all the doubts that keep us apart.” The text makes it clear, the challenge in sharing love, means accepting its existence.
Faith (Gospel): No Weapon
Fred Hammond is a prolific contemporary gospel music composer. This piece of music is based off Isaiah 54:17. Written in 6/8 time it is musically structured to convey a sense of safety. The pace and rhythm of the work is equal to that of a person rocking a baby to sleep. The lyrics of the text repeats over and over, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper. It won’t work.” Towards the middle of the piece, the orchestra has a gospel “shout” section. The ensemble emphatically proclaims over and over, “It won't work.” This infectious jubilation culminates the shout section by ending in a single orchestral hit. To believe that one can endure beyond all matter of circumstances, no matter what that weapon is- including the life destroying shot from a gun, is an act of faith.