Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra (1941)

By Richard E. Rodda

Written for the concert Common Ground performed on April 15, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Morton Gould, composer, conductor, pianist, arranger and administrator, was born on December 10, 1913 in New York City. By the age of four, he was playing the piano and composing; at six, he had one of his first compositions published (a waltz called, appropriately, Just Six); and by the time he was eight, he had played piano on broadcasts of WOR Radio in New York. In 1932, when he was nineteen, he became staff pianist at Radio City Music Hall. After a brief stint with NBC, he was engaged as composer, arranger and conductor by WOR, where he did a weekly broadcast; from 1942 to 1945, he performed the same duties for the Cresta Blanca Carnival and Chrysler Hour programs on CBS. It was for those broadcasts that he composed his popular American Concertette (which was choreographed by Jerome Robbins as Interplay) and the Latin-American Symphonette.

In addition to his light compositions for radio, Gould has written for film (Windjammer), television (the World War I series, Holocaust and Celebration), ballet (Fall River Legend), Broadway (Billion dollar Baby and Arms and the Girl), symphonic band, chamber ensembles and chorus, and has also produced some fifty works for orchestra, including American Salute, Spirituals, Vivaldi Gallery, Apple Waltzes, Burch field Gallery, Lincoln Legend and Symphony of Spirituals. He is also widely known as a conductor, having won a Grammy Award for his recording of the music of Charles Ives with the Chicago Symphony. His other honors include twelve Grammy nominations, the 1983 Gold Baton Award from the American Symphony Orchestra League, the 1985 Medal of Honor for Music from the National Arts Club, membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Music Council’s Golden Eagle Award. In addition, Morton Gould is president of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).

Gould’s Spirituals, the work which established his reputation as a concert composer, was introduced under the composer’s direction at the WNYC Festival of American Music in New York on February 9, 1941. Soon after Spirituals was premiered, Gould said of it:

I have tried to write music the way one speaks. I tried to make it as direct and simple as possible. Part of the “Jubilee” section, for example, is in boogie-woogie pattern. Of course, many contemporary jazz effects coincide with certain rhythmic patterns in our spirituals. What I tried to do was to synthesize some of these features. My starting premise was that our spirituals develop a wide gamut of emotions, musically. These emotions are specifically American. The songs range from strictly spiritual ones that are escapist in feeling, or light and gay, to those having tremendous depth and tragic impact. My idea was to get five moods, widely contrasted in feeling. Although most of the work is original as far as thematic material goes, I have used fragments of folk tunes here and there. The first movement (“Proclamation”) has a dramatic religious intensity. The second movement (“Sermon”) is a simple narrative – a sort of lyrical folk tale. The third movement (“A Little Bit of Sin”) is humorous and good-natured. The fourth movement (“Protest”) is bitter, grim and crying-out. The last movement (“Jubilee”) is a festive and dance-like piece.