How to Honor Black Music Throughout the Year Part 2: Black Choral Literature

Angelica Rowell Jul 04, 2024

Learn more: artistic development, racial equity

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As summer is in full swing, February feels like a wisp of a memory and all the programming you did for Black History Month might currently be laying dormant until its resurrection next year. It’s possible that once February ended, you moved on to the next thing, your choir proceeding as usual; or perhaps instead you were left wondering, “How can I continue to uplift Black voices and program Black music consistently?," but didn’t know where to start.

In Part One of this series, we discussed Spirituals and how the who, what, where, and why of these pieces are crucial when programming these historical works. Spirituals are multifaceted and contain a breadth of emotional stories, from joy to pain, and fear to freedom. This and the fact that they are beloved around the world, makes it easy to include Spirituals in your programs year-round. However, I must reiterate a very important sentence from Part One of this series that you may have overlooked or forgotten – Spirituals are not the extent of Black Choral Literature.

Obviously, I’m not telling you to not program Spirituals, but I am encouraging you to not program only Spirituals or use them as the sole piece to diversify your repertoire. There is a whole world of Black choral composers out there who have created and are currently creating riveting works that belong on your programs. So instead of including the same cantatas, requiems, and choral art songs by the old, dead, white men of the canon (i.e. Bach, Mozart, Haydn… the list goes on); consider supplementing or pairing them with works by Black composers.

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Repainting the Renaissance

When aiming to program Renaissance music, it’s easy to look to the same heavy hitters like Monteverdi, Tallis, Byrd, or Palestrina; but despite common misconception, this period doesn’t only belong to white, western Europeans. There were many Black composers and musicians during the Renaissance period that have been forgotten or overlooked due to the racism of the time, like Vicente Lusitano. There are also contemporary composers creating works with the same contrapuntal integrity and beauty of Renaissance motets like Kevin Allen.

Vicente Lusitano (1520-1561)

Born around 1520 in a city that is now a part of Spain, Portuguese composer Vicente Lusitano is one of the oldest known mixed-race composers of African descent and the only published Black composer in 16th-century Europe.  Although only a small amount of his compositions survive today, Lusitano’s works have received an uptake in popularity thanks to the rise in awareness of programming Black works post-2020 and Chanticleer’s full score transcriptions of his motets.

  • Ave, spes nostra - The text of this work is all about hope, which is beautifully displayed in the effortless interweaving of light lines between voice parts. With its theme, this work could be programmed across a breadth of concerts.
  • Inviolata - This motet’s text asks for protection from Mother Mary and each vocal line acts equally as a cry for help and a warm embrace of the Mother’s arms. This work could pair well with a setting of “Balm in Gilead” (arr. William L. Dawson or Ysaye Barnwell are my favorite), or in a program about the turmoil of the world.

Kevin Allen (b. 1964)

If you merely listened to Kevin Allen’s sacred works you would never in a million years pin the composer as a contemporary, Black American man based in Chicago. His contrapuntal masterpieces harken to that of Palestrina and other motet makers with languid lines and profound singability. While Allen has also composed operas and orchestral pieces, it’s his church music for which he is best known.

  • O Sacrum Convivium - This text is generally used for the feast of Corpus Christi and would be perfect to program during a communion Sunday, but the glory of this work deserves to be on any and every program. With smooth, flowing lines that lead to delicate cadences and key words in the text such as “renew,” “glory,” and “grace,” O Sacrum Convivium would be a stunning addition to many concerts.
  • Cantiones Sacrae Simplices - The perfect church musician companion, this 80-page collection consists of simple SATB motets in both English and Latin that can be used throughout the liturgical year or pulled from for specific programming needs.

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Backing Away from Bach

Don’t be afraid by the title of this section; I’ll never encourage you to ditch Bach (completely). His compositional style is a foundational part of classical and choral music, and with 1,128 works preserved today,  it’s no wonder he’s one of the most programmed composers in the world. Nearly three-fourths of Bach’s compositions are religious in nature and most of them revolve around pain and suffering instead of love, so if you’re looking to switch up the vibe and diversify your sacred selections, here are a few Black composers to know.

David Hurd (b. 1950)

Widely recognized as one of the United States’ premier concert organists, sacred music composers, and church musicians; David Hurd studied at both Juilliard and Oberlin and holds honorary doctorates at three different divinity schools, including Yale. He is known for his organ improvisation and was named Composer of the Year in 2010 by the American Guild of Organists.

  • Love Bade Me Welcome - The poetry of George Herbert speaks for itself and as a standalone is gorgeous, but there’s something about Hurd’s use of the chord on “slack” that twists my heart in the best way. This setting can be placed in a sacred space, but also would be equally impactful and functional in a program with themes of love or acceptance.

Victor C. Johnson (b. 1978)

This Dallas native is a composing and arranging fiend! With over 350 choral works, vocal solo books, and keyboard collections currently in print, you are bound to find something by him for your programming.

  • A Jubilant Song - This short and sweet piece is perfect for beginner to intermediate choirs. It could serve as an uptempo anthem during a Sunday service, or with text that’s not overtly religious, it could also work in your middle school or high school programs. A Jubilant Song would be a nice addition to a holiday program or an energetic kick-off to a concert with a joyful theme.

Jose Mauricio Nunes Garcia (1767-1830)

Technically this Afro-Brazilian composer falls under the Classical period of music and not late Baroque like Bach, but Nunes Garcia’s extensive list of sacred and liturgical works rivals that of Bach. Plus, his classical prowess gave Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn a run for their money!

  • Missa de Requiem, CPM 185 - Written in the grief-filled aftermath of the passing of his mother, this mass is considered to be one of Nunes Garcia’s masterpieces. Its tension-filled first movement is a heartbreakingly beautiful depiction of pain and its tonal composition is reminiscent of Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. In fact, the two would be incredible programmed together for a powerhouse concert about anxiety and loss.

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I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas

It’s no secret that programming during the holidays can get redundant over the years. Audiences want the classics, but as a program director, you may be yearning to include something fresh and/or a little more challenging than your standard carol. Well, did you know that there’s a plethora of Christmas and holiday music out there by Black composers?

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)

A piano prodigy having composed her first composition by age five, Margaret Bonds was one of the first African American composers to gain popularity and recognition in the United States. A social activist as well, Bonds was the first Black musician to play with the Chicago Symphony,  arranged an array of Negro Spirituals, and was a frequent collaborator of poet Langston Hughes. Her works range from solo art songs to orchestral behemoths and all are filled with beauty beyond compare.

  • The Ballad of the Brown King (A Christmas Cantata) - This cantata tells the Christmas story from a new perspective and is filled to the brim with sweeping orchestrations and rich harmonies. Despite its obscurity, programming this work for a Christmas concert would leave even the most staunch Christmas purist happy. Round out your program with traditional carols like Abbie Betinis’ arrangement of Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Leonard de Paur (1914-1998)

Baritone and multi-instrumentalist, de Paur began to compose while he was a part of the Hall Johnson Choir and studied at Columbia University as well as the Institute of Musical Arts, which later became Juilliard. During WWII, he enrolled in the U.S. Army Air Forces and was quickly promoted to Lieutenant. He went on to music direct the play, Winged Victory, and then was assigned to an all-male chorus comprised of 35 singers from the 372nd Infantry’s Glee Club. This group went on to be known as the De Paur Chorus.

  • Calypso Christmas - This album consists of twelve tracks for “Christmas in the Tropics”. It boasts upbeat songs about Jesus and sweet Spanish lullabies about the Virgin Mary. Overall, its vibe is quintessential 1950s male vocal ensemble that would be sure to add a bit of fun kitsch to your program.

James Furman (1937-1989)

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Furman began playing piano at age six, although he is best known for having composed over 50 choral works.

  • Hehlehlooyuh: A Joyful Expression - This rhythmically intense and driving exclamation of joy is sure to entertain and impress any audience! Consider pairing this in a program with James Lee III’s “Hallelu Yah!”, “Sing Alleluia” by Margaret Bonds (Movement III in The Ballad of the Brown King), and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” for the ultimate concert finisher.

Please let it be known that I could have continued programming concerts to include works by Black composers from various backgrounds, time periods, and musical styles in this blog post because the breadth of Black choral literature is extensive, but I would’ve been here forever. By breaking down just a fraction of this massive body into three introductory categories, I hope that you see just how much music by Black composers is out there and all the possibilities that entails. If you’re itching to learn more, I highly suggest the following resources that helped me, which you can find below.

And until the third (and final) part of this series comes out I leave you with this question: “Which Black work mentioned in this post would you most like to program in the future?”

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Angelica Rowell

Angelica Rowell (she/her) is a singer, actress, writer, and arts educator based in Los Angeles, California. She is adamant about the power art has to change perspectives, and strives to create works that open doors for marginalized peoples while educating others in hopes of creating a more understanding and just world. As a creative, Angelica has sung as a session singer on the soundtrack for Avatar 2: The Way of Water and as a featured soloist for the LA Philharmonic’s centennial commision by Pulitzer Prize winner, Ellen Reid; performed in musicals and operas, including The Industry’s acclaimed Sweet Land, debuted various plays with theatre companies across Los Angeles, and co-wrote two episodes on AMC Allblk’s TV show, SNAP. She is also a member of Los Angeles’ premier women’s choir, VOX Femina and social justice choir, Tonality. In addition to her creative work, Angelica has guest lectured at universities, led and created social justice based workshops for adults and youth, is a founding member of the arts non-profit Black Light Arts Collective (BLAC), and serves as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consultant on Bay Area-based theatre company, Poison Apple. She holds bachelor’s degrees in theatre and classical voice from the University of California, Irvine.

Angelica Rowell