About the Program, notes by Thomas Neenan
About this Piece
Nathaniel Gumbs, Director of Chapel Music at Yale, offers a program of rich colors and textures, ranging from César Franck’s Choral No. 1 in E major to lesser-known masterworks by the blind British composer and keyboard virtuoso Alfred Hollins to America’s greatest Black female composer, Florence Price. This “Power to the People!” festival appearance reflects his deep personal association with the Black church and the vibrant repertoire of gospel songs, hymns, and spirituals, arranged by some of today’s most prominent Black composers.
Born blind in Yorkshire, England, Alfred Hollins (1865–1942) quickly rose to prominence in Victorian England as both a concert organist and pianist. After a program at London’s Crystal Palace in the presence of Queen Victoria, in which he performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, he studied with the famed conductor/composer/pianist Hans von Bülow in Berlin. A series of concerts in Germany, where he played three concertos in one evening (by Liszt, Schumann, and Beethoven), catapulted him into international notoriety that led to decades of international touring as a pianist and organist. In 1904, he was in New Zealand and Australia; between 1907 and 1916, he made numerous trips to South Africa, and in 1925-26, he undertook a 65-city tour of the United States, sponsored by the Skinner Organ Company. It is estimated that he traveled more than 600,000 miles as a touring artist. The Concert Overture in C minor is a brief sturm und drang work whose language is reminiscent of another favorite of Queen Victoria: Felix Mendelssohn. Hollins died in Edinburgh in 1942 at the age of 76.
César Franck (1822-1890) stands as a cornerstone of the French organ tradition, leading an intrepid group of younger composers in Paris at a time when the imposing heights of Wagner’s chromaticism influenced French music as much as a rediscovery of earlier French traditions. Written in the last year of his life, his Three Chorals for organ represent a mastering of motivic development. In Choral No. 1 in E major, Franck invites a patient observer to discern and discover relationships between motives in a form which is basically a theme followed by three variations. At the same time, the almost hypnotic alternation between three manuals, all carefully indicated in the score, suggests not only antiphonal use of the instrument, but symbolism assigned to each manual as well.
Sigfrid Karl-Elert (1877-1933) preferred composing for the organ and harmonium, and his musical style ranged from strict fugal writing in the tradition of Bach to ethereal evocations of nature, as can be heard in the Harmonies du Soir, composed in 1909.
In 2009, a treasure-trove of music was found in the abandoned summer home of Florence Price (1887–1953), the most prominent Black female composer of her generation and one of the most important American composers of the early 20th century. Born in Little Rock, she attended the New England Conservatory and was the first Black woman to be recognized as an important symphonic composer. Her output includes four symphonies, four concertos, songs, chamber music, a large body of works for piano, and several fine pieces for organ. The First Sonata for Organ is a straight-ahead concert work in the mold of the Elgar sonata. The first movement begins with a bold statement that leads to an extended pedal melody which introduces the main theme for the movement. The cantabile second movement leads to a brilliant toccata-like finale that concludes with a broad chorale-style passage for full organ.
Like her contemporary William Grant Still, Florence Price sought to infuse many of her concert works with the bluesy musical language and traditional melodies of the Black spiritual. This rich body of music serves as the source of inspiration for the second half of Nathaniel Gumbs’ Power to The People! program.
In The Oxford Book of Spirituals, the great composer/arranger/conductor Moses Hogan writes, “spirituals came to be vehicles for sustaining the spirits of those in bondage and for aiding the escapes of some to a life of freedom in the North… By the end of the Civil War, these songs had become a significant part of the cultural legacy of Black people, and some…recognized the value in preserving them…at institutions such as Fisk University, in Nashville.” Spirituals were an important part of the first European tour by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1871, and after that, spirituals became part of the core repertoire of church, collegiate, and civic choirs throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Nathaniel Gumbs also presents the world premiere performances of arrangements of two beloved spirituals, “Hold On” by Joubert and “Soon-a will be done” and Stoddart.
Joseph Joubert is a New York pianist, composer, and conductor. The son of a Baptist minister, he made his Town Hall debut at the age of 16 and won the National Association of Negro Musicians’ national piano competition in 1980. The spiritual “Hold On,” which is also known as “Gospel Plow” and “Keep Your Hand on the Plow,” is thought to have been a song of encouragement for those seeking to travel north, with “the plow” being a well-known reference to the Big Dipper constellation that points northward.
John Stoddart is a native of Philadelphia, where he grew up singing and playing piano in church. As a recording artist, music producer, educator, and singer/songwriter, Stoddart’s credits range from Grammy nominations to appearances at the Inaugural Prayer Breakfasts of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
William Bolcom (b. 1938) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, and has multiple Grammy nominations to his credit. His compositions cover the spectrum of 20th-century styles, from the avant-garde to ragtime and cheeky parlor songs. Gospel Preludes is a four-volume work composed for organ between 1979 and 1984 and includes a setting of the much-loved hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The words were composed in 1855 by the Irish-born Canadian Joseph Scriven with music by attorney Charles Converse. The tune is alternatively known as “Converse” after the composer and as “Erie” after the town in Pennsylvania where he lived.
The music of Uzee Brown, Jr. (b. 1950), appears in film soundtracks, on the Broadway stage, and in concert halls throughout the U.S. He was Music Director of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir for 12 years and currently serves as Professor of Music and Chair of the Creative and Performing Arts Division at Morehouse College. Churchyard Chatter is the first of a set of compositions entitled Three Pieces for Organ written for Elaine Satterwhite, that are intended to reflect church life in some way. Churchyard Chatter captures the vivid experiences from the composer’s own church background with worshippers gathering before Sunday morning service, chatting, laughing, gossiping, and generally enjoying a moment of social respite.
The program concludes with one of the most powerful songs to come out of the Black church: “We Shall Overcome,” in an arrangement by Carl Haywood. The song is believed to have become popular as a protest song during a cigar workers’ strike in Charleston, SC, in 1945, but its origins date back to a gospel hymn, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” written by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley of Philadelphia in 1901. It was published in 1947 and was taken up in the ’50s and ’60s by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, to name just two. President Johnson famously used the phrase in a 1965 congressional address following the “Bloody Sunday” riots, and the words were recited by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his final sermon, delivered in Memphis, TN, four days before his assassination. Carl Haywood is internationally recognized as a composer/arranger, educator, and organist. He has an impressive catalog of choral and keyboard works and currently serves as Director of Choral Activities and Conductor of the Concert Choir and Spartan Chorale at Norfolk State University.