HHYC Tour to Austria

Program Notes

By Alyson Greer Espinosa, conductor

The Tour Choir from the Handel and Haydn Society Youth Choruses is proud to present their concert titled "America and the Handel and Haydn Society." Artistically, this concert represents the singers’ identity as H+H Youth Choruses members who grew up in the culturally diverse region of New England while embracing their American musical heritage.

The first and final set of selections are from H+H’s “Old Colony Collection.” H+H published these anthologies 200 years ago which contain a diverse array of compositions that were sung on both sides of the Atlantic: anthems, or choral works with texts from the Bible; glees—choral works on topics that ranged from love and nature to more morally-minded or sacred ideas; arrangements and adaptations of other compositions through the addition of religious texts; and selections from oratorios by Handel and Haydn. The program begins with a beautiful round in praise of music by Lowell Mason (1792-1872), whose relationship with H+H has long been recognized as a crucial development in the history of American music. Lowell Mason was America's first public school music teacher, known for his ability in hymn singing and conducting choirs. In 1838, Mason convinced the Boston schools to include singing as an essential part of the school curriculum. Continuing the program is a canon by English Renaissance composer William Byrd (1540-1623) followed by two duets by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) from his famous oratorios Solomon and Samson. The remainder of the set features two pieces by Boston-born composer, William Billings (1746-1800). Billings was regarded as the first American choral composer and as a leading member of the First New England School his hymn tunes, such as Africa and Creation are forceful, stirring, and celebratory, creating a unique sound that is synonymous with Billings. Hark! The vesper hymn is stealing was arranged by Sir John Stevenon (1762-1852), a contributor to the “Old Colony Collection.” The original melody is identified only as a Russian Air, with the last musical phrase added by Stevenson, who also set the whole as a glee for four voices. The selection of Almighty God when round Thy shrine by Mozart is an excellent example of how compositions would be adapted by adding new text to an existing chorus. The music by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1756-91), was written for the Chorus of Priests from his opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Thomas Moore provided a sacred text, thus transforming this opera chorus into an anthem. The set is concluded with Haydn’s exuberant chorus Awake the Harp from The Creation. (Teresa M. Neff, © 2016, Handel and Haydn Society Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow)

The second set of repertoire focuses on choral music by American composer, pianist, organist and music educator, Florence B. Price (1837-1953). Price holds a special place since she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music (Boston, Massachusetts, United States) and composed many beautiful choral pieces, such as "Wander-Thirst," "Summer Clouds," and “Weathers.” These delightfully charming octavos showcase Price’s mastery of choral part writing. Price is noted as the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. She composed over 300 works, including four symphonies, four concertos, as well as choral works, art songs, chamber music and music for solo instruments. The final Price selection is "Resignation,’ which is the fulcrum to move to the final set of repertoire—Negro Spirituals. While this is not a traditional spiritual, it carries many of the same characteristics. Negro Spirituals are a profoundly important musical idiom in the United States. These pieces are a key primary source in understanding how enslaved people made meaning from the world around them

As the Handel and Haydn Society’s Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow Dr. Teresa M. Neff writes: Spirituals are individual experiences shared as part of a community. A direct result of slavery, spirituals are an indelible part of African-American culture. Spirituals are also a type of community singing, with structures that encourage participation. The rich and long history of the genre began as an oral tradition that was itself a blending of African and Anglo-American musical traditions and rituals in which enslaved groups were compelled to conform their rituals to the constraints imposed by white plantation owners. Anglo-American hymns also figured in the development of spirituals as enslaved and free populations were expected to worship in churches with white congregations…Another factor contributing to the development of the spiritual were the camp meetings held in the U.S. frontier in the early 19th century. These were often interracial and attracted thousands of participants. The music for these outdoor meetings, which could last days or weeks, was designed for maximum participation from all participants. 

With the emergence of groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the later part of the 19th century, the spiritual became part of the concert hall tradition in both the United States and Europe. In the 20th century, singers and composers such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, William E. Dawson, and Moses Hogan, respectively, reshaped the spiritual for solo and choral performance. It is this tradition that is honored today in the program with spirituals that represents the powerful facets of this American artistic tradition. 

Spiritual texts are generally related to the Bible, Jesus, nature, and religious experiences. They address the desolation and despair as well as the hope and determination of people living in absolute uncertainty with little control over any aspect of their lives. Suffering was a theme with which the individual could immediately identify, and natural phenomena in spiritual texts often held multiple meanings. A river, for example, might be an analogy for life or it might carry a specific secondary meaning: in the 19th century, the Jordan River was another way to refer to the Ohio River, a marker of freedom on the Underground Railroad. The word home, a reference to home, Canaan Land often had either the meaning of returning to the motherland of Africa, being released from enslavement through death and rising to peace in heaven, or traveling to a place where freedom can be found such as Canada or Canaan Land. (Teresa M. Neff, © 2023, Handel and Haydn Society Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow) Spiritual texts also would center around heroic journeys of major figures in the Old Testament from The Bible, such as Joshua and his battle of Jericho or the prophet and priest, Ezekiel who promised that the exiles would once again return home.

The closing begins with the famous American hymn tune by John Newton (1725-1807), Amazing Grace, set in a stunning jazz arrangement by Will Todd (b. 1970). Following is a soothing anthem by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) adapted by Hal H. Hopson (b. 1933) as a modern day nod to this tradition set by the Old Colony Collection. The final piece, of course, is the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah—which H+H performed at its very first concert in 1815 and premiered in the United States in 1818—as a jubilant and quintessential H+H ending to this program.