This week the choir sings an anthem based on the freedom song, “We Shall Overcome,” arranged by Tom Trenney. “We Shall Overcome” was a popular rallying song during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but its roots extend deeper into the past. Lyrically, the song is thought to be a descendant of the gospel hymn, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” written by the Methodist minister Charles Albert Tindley of Philadelphia in 1900. Musically, the first half of “We Shall Overcome” resembles the African-American spiritual, “No More Auction Block,” while the second half is more or less identical to the 19th-century hymn, “I’ll Be All Right.” Some version of the song was used in a miner’s strike in 1908 and again in the mid-1940s during a strike by tobacco workers in South Carolina. Several participants of that strike brought the song to the union stronghold Highlander Folk School, where Zilphia Horton made it a regular part of each meeting. Pete Seeger learned the song from Horton, changed the first line to “We shall overcome” (instead of “We will overcome”), added several more verses, and spread the song to other folk singers and activists. The song’s popularity exploded during the 1960s, and its first line was quoted in speeches by Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This week the choir sings the anthem, “A New Magnificat,” by Carolyn Jennings. The anthem combines the text of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) with the Song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10). The similarity between these two biblical texts is brought into sharp focus: the two mothers, one from each testament, sing to each other about the graciousness of God’s salvation. Jennings is professor emeritus at St. Olaf’s College, Northfield, Minnesota, where she taught for many years.
This week the choir sings an anthem based on William Billings’ “fuging tune” (or round), “When Jesus Wept.” Billings was self-taught in music (having dropped out of school when his father died at age 14), but is considered the first significant American composer. Blind in one eye, with one short leg and a withered arm, Billings was trained as a tanner, had an addiction to snuff and an “uncommon negligence of person.” His collection, The New England Psalm-Singer (1770), was the first printed book of American music. The frontispiece was engraved by Paul Revere, and Billings delayed publication a year until he could get American-made paper. Billings composed both music and words (based on John 11:35) for “When Jesus Wept.” The arrangement sung by the choir is by the American composer Fred Bock.
This week the choir will sing the Rutter Requiem as part of a Special Music Sunday. John Rutter attended Highgate School in London, where he took part in a 1963 recording of Britten’s War Requiem, conducted by the composer. In 1983 he travelled to the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale to examine a recently-discovered score of Fauré’s Requiem. There he discovered that Fauré’s original version was scored for a small chamber ensemble, and that the piece had only later been reworked for full orchestra. Rutter edited the original version of the Fauré Requiem for publication at the same time that he began composing his own version, and Fauré’s work was clearly inspirational. Rutter composed the work in two separate versions, one for full orchestra and one for chamber ensemble. We will perform this second version on Sunday, scored for flute, oboe, cello, harp, timpani and organ. The solo in the Pie Jesu movement will be sung by guest soprano Lauren Hauser. Rutter combined the traditional Requiem text (sung in Latin) with two psalm settings, of Psalms 130 and 23, sung in English. Dedicated to his father, who had died the year before, Rutter’s Requiem was finished in 1985 and immediately became immensely popular, receiving over 500 orchestral performances in the next six months in the United States alone.
This week — the first Sunday of Lent — the choir sings two anthems, the first a setting by Russell Schulz-Widmar of a poem by the seventeenth-century English poet, Robert Herrick (of “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” fame). Schulz-Widmar sets Herrick’s devotional lyric, “Sweet spirit, comfort me” to a melody by the eighteenth-century French composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The organ music this week is by Charpentier’s contemporary (and for a brief time colleague at the royal court), Francois Couperin. The second anthem this Sunday is “Haste thee, O God,” by the seventeenth-century English composer, Adrian Batten, a setting of Psalm 70.