I’ve observed a number of discussions taking place on social media this week regarding favorite choral pieces by African-American composers. I thought that would be a great idea for a post, where I could share more than just one or two titles. These are all pieces I have sung or conducted that have made an impression on me.
I first learned about Nathan Carter and his work at when I stumbled onto a few YouTube videos. Dr. Carter was choral director at Morgan State University, a predominantly African-American institution in Baltimore, for more than three decades, until his death in 1968. Even from those grainy clips, it’s obvious Dr. Carter was a consummate musician and inspiring educator. He was also a fine composer and arranger in his own right.
I think this piece is simply a perfect setting of the Psalm text. Beautiful, striking, understated. Also check out his setting of Psalm 150.
Abide With Me
arr. Moses Hogan
Moses Hogan likely needs no introduction, so I will leave you to enjoy one of his most piercingly beautiful works.
O Praise the Lord
A New Jersey native, nephew of jazz musician King Oliver, and one-time Paul Hindemith student, Ulysses Kay composed in a neoclassical style. Known mainly for his orchestral and choral compositions, Kay also wrote five operas. He spent the bulk of his career on faculty at Lehman College at the City University of New York.
Angular and unsettled, O Praise the Lord offers a piercing take on the Psalm 117 text. It’s a shame that his music isn’t more widely performed, but I’m heartened to find a growing number of recordings of Kay’s music.
I Will Lift up Mine Eyes
You never know where you might find a real gem. I spent six years teaching elementary music in the public school system. One day when I was under the weather and beginning to lose my voice, I went looking for a video that could fill a few minutes of at the end of each class period. I found an episode of Reading Rainbow featuring the now-defunct Boys Choir of Harlem. They kept showing these short clips of the choir rehearsing an amazing piece. After rewinding and listening a few times with the volume all the way up (much to the chagrin of my 3rd grade class) I heard the phrase “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.”
Okay, so, Psalm 23.
Well, after a long afternoon of googling, I managed to figure it out. It turns out I was listening to the last of a three movement cantata by Adolphus Hailstork. Hailstork is legit, having studied composition with David Diamond, Vittorio Giannini, and the great Nadia Boulanger.
In I Will Lift up Mine Eyes, Hailstork masterfully incorporates a gospel idiom into a classical style. The result is a gripping piece of music.
You good folks know this one already, I’m sure, but it didn’t feel right to not include it in this list. My favorite movement is the Agnus Dei.
Ain’ -A That Good News
William L. Dawson
This piece is representative of the sub-genre of African-American spirituals arranged by the likes of Dawson, Burleigh, and others. This recording is conducted by the arranger, so it’s a primary source for how this stuff shall sound. Stunning!
Listen to the Lambs
R. Nathaniel Dett
This is probably my all-time favorite. It just leaves me speechless. Listen!