is, surprisingly enough, the first recording released by Opera Ebony. Founded in New York City some twenty one years ago by bass-baritone singer Benjamin Matthews and pianist Wayne Sanders, Opera Ebony set sail with a mandate to perform a diverse repertoire that would reflect the talents of African-American Opera, lieder, jazz and spirituals.
"Even though we perform traditional European and African-American classical music," explains Wayne Sanders, "we as trained singers are not afraid to learn the style and enter into the world of the 'other'. We are able to do it without apology. We don't make a big deal out of it. We just choose the right singers and, just like when we work on German lieder, we study with the right people. We find many people don't do that when it comes to learning about America music. Whether it be jazz, spirituals or something else, there is time that needs to be put in to understand it. There also has to be a joy and a willingness to embrace it. Training does not mean that we cut off exploring other styles."
Benjamin Matthews amplified Sanders' thoughts: "Spirituals have a style and a tradition and unless it's preserved, it's gonna be completely lost. They are to be studied just as one would study the German, French or Italian style of repertoire. I feel that any young black artist who comes along who does not at some point study with a black teacher misses a lot of his own musical tradition."
The six vocalists that Matthews and Sanders chose for this recording are highly trained and have recorded and performed professionally for years primarily within the European concert or art music tradition. All put in considerable time attempting to get inside of the spiritual tradition. In 1991 Opera Ebony performed some of the material in Europe as part of a show entitled "Freedom" to overwhelming acclaim. In 1994 Arcadia Records decided to take the group into the studio to record a somewhat edited version of the material first heard on the European tour. All the evidence needed to attest to the success of their efforts is most likely emanating from your speakers as you are reading this. Beginning with Matthews' solo rendering of "If He Changed Mah Name" through the group sung "Done Crossed Every River," Freedom's Journey reverberates with an abundance of joy, beauty, power and simply stunning singing.
The timing of this recording could not be more prescient. As we approach the last few years of the twentieth century, the African-American spiritual sadly has fallen into neglect. When the spiritual tradition first arose sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, it did so as a distinctly American form in response to specific social needs. These songs provided nourishment, sustenance and comfort at a time where virtually none was forthcoming for a disenfranchised people who found themselves enslaved in an impossibly alien and hostile environment.
The spiritual tradition did not die out after slavery ended but it did change, subdividing into two fundamentally different but complementary streams. For many African-Americans, singing spirituals was a form of daily recreation and worship. The metaphors of escape and survival cited above remained meaningful right through Reconstruction, the blacks of the early twentieth century and up through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
The second way that spirituals began to be performed was aligned with much of the aesthetic of the European concert tradition. This stream initially was fostered by singing groups sponsored by the first black colleges, most notably Fisk, but also including Hampton and Tuskegee as well as others. It is important to understand that both streams were performing the same body of song but that the college-sponsored singing groups performed written arrangements that manifested the approach of the concert tradition when it came to parameters such as voice leading intonation.
Beginning in the 1920s, a number of successful New York and Chicago-based African-American composers and performers began to publish collections of arranged spirituals. These collections, again, drew on the same body of traditional material that had been created in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century. The arrangements, though, reflected the concert or art music tradition. Composers such as Eva Jessye, Margaret Bonds and Noah Ryder all had music degrees from universities that had trained them in the European concert tradition. This aesthetic was reflected in their printed arrangements. It is from these arrangements of the spirituals that Opera Ebony has created the evocative performances included here.
Alabama-born Artistic Director Benjamin Matthews has intimate familiarity with every style that the spirituals have been performed in. "I heard them sung in the cornfields and the cottonfields," recounted Matthews. "My neighbors sang them as they washed and they sang them as they worked. Many times you could hear them blocks away."
Matthews goes on to point out that when he was growing up in the late 1930s and early 1940s there were still people alive who had been born in slavery. The culture that had produced the spiritual tradition was still close at hand. Much of that culture was carefully passed down generation to generation. "It left a tremendous impression," continued Matthews. "We used to sit on our front porch at night and that was our entertainment. We would sing almost every day and every night. I learned those spirituals at my mother's feet and my grandmother's feet."
Matthews went on to study the concert and arranged traditions with Edward Boatner who, himself, had been instrumental in pushing Hall Johnson's career. Matthews characterizes Opera Ebony's take on the spirituals as a mixture of both the folk and concert traditions but concedes that ultimately the latter has more influence.
Over the years he has assiduously collected songbooks and manuscripts of concert arrangements of spirituals and it is from his library that the material recorded here was selected. Much of the material is today quite rare and little known, some of it never actually published. This choice of repertoire was quite deliberate. Of the hundreds of spirituals that have been arranged, only a few dozen are actively performed on recordings and on the concert stage, and these are usually performed with a heavy gospel influence. Both Matthews and Sanders did not want to record the common practice repertoire such as "Steal Away" and "Roll Jordon Roll." Instead they wanted to give greater exposure to the best of the wealth of spirituals that have fallen into neglect.
Matthews also had another agenda in mind when he began selecting repertoire to be performed. "I felt that there were many females who have made a wonderful contribution. They have beautiful arrangements and somehow they have not been recorded." Fully one-third of the material included here for which there is a known arranger was arranged by an African-American woman.
Freedom's Journey is a marvelous recording. As a sheer listening experience it is rich. The fact that so little of the material is known today makes it also quite important. I hope it is the first of several collections of spirituals from Opera Ebony.