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Conference Morsel: Singing the "Traditional" Spiritual

(An excerpt from the interest session “Spirit, Style, and Score: Preferred Choices and Practices in Singing the ‘Traditional Spiritual’,” presented by James Benjamin Kinschen, Jr. during the 2014 ACDA Southern Division Conference)
       “Traditional” choral settings of the sacred African-American folksong or “spiritual” were first made famous by the fabled Fisk Jubilee Singers in the years following slavery. Building on those beginnings, Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, Hall Johnson, and John Work, and other composers in the 20th century. In more recent times others (Moses Hogan perhaps being the most prolific) have added to this literature.
       One issue that often faces a conductor is fidelity to the score or what liberties can be taken.  Most of the composers who set these songs to music had very definite ideas about what they wanted.  These settings are artistic creations akin to any other choral composition.  So, approach the score as we might any other by first trying to understand what the composer is attempting to say.  The composer had an idea!  What was it?  To discover it and then convey it – and help our singers discover and convey it – is at the heart of what we do!  The traditional “spiritual” is no different, really.  And the discovery leads us in the direction of performances that are authentic and convincing.   Attendant questions include: what constitutes an authentic sound and approach, and is the music the same as – or is it different from gospel music?  Also how will approaches to tempo, tone, articulation, inner rhythm, and to diction and dialect affect the performance of this music?   In short, how might we bring this music to life while honoring it and respecting the composer’s score?