Explores the rich heritage of the African-American Spiritual.
Commissioned by the Akron Symphony.
Special Judges’ Citation from the 2017-18 American Prize for Composition: “Best Use of Musical Material from Another Source”
2[1.2/pic] 3[1.2.EH] 2 2 — 4 3 3 1 — timp+1 — SATB chorus— strings
male and/or female solo voice (2 long solo passages)
See list of spirituals included in this work.
The musicians immediately fell in love with it in rehearsal, and the audience members were on their feet at the end of the performance. The place was just electric. Dr. Grady Butler, one of the students who went to jail with Dr. King in 1960, was in attendance at our performance and was deeply touched. He was simply effusive in his praise. Thank you for this powerful work of beauty, struggle, and hope.
This work explores the rich heritage of and range of emotions found in the African-American spiritual from the songs of sorrow such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” to the songs of sustaining faith, such as “Deep River” and “I Am Determined to Follow Jesus,” to the songs of victory and praise, such as “God’s Gonna Set This World” and “Ain’t Got Time to Die.”
Video: excerpt, Akron Symphony premiere
Video: Akron Symphony Conductor Christopher Wilkins introducing Stirrin’
- Ohio Northern University Symphony, Travis Jürgens, conductor and the Malone University Chorale, Jon Peterson, director.
- Chicago Bar Association Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, David Katz, conducting.
- The Fountain Inn Symphony (South Carolina), Michael Moore, conducting.
- The Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (Texas), Dominique Røyem, conducting.
- The Akron Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Christopher Wilkins, conducting.
Spirituals included in this work
- Steal Away (vocal solo followed by chorus)
- Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child
- Deep River (vocal solo)
- God’s Gonna Set This World On Fire
- I am Determined to Walk With Jesus
- Ain’t Got Time To Die
- Various other instrumental quotes from spirituals used as transition material
African-American spirituals constitute one of the largest and most significant repertoires of American folk music. Birthed in slavery, the Spirituals were a means of solace and encouragement, combining Biblical promises with expressions of the hardships of slavery.
During the first few years of the 1870s, this literature became known to the world through the agency of a newly formed nine-voice chorus at the recently incorporated Fisk University in Nashville, founded to educate recently freed slaves. This chorus, formed to help raise awareness of the new school and to aid fundraising efforts, adopted the name The Fisk Jubilee Singers. Although the Singers first tour, lasting several months, was fraught with hardship, illness, and hunger, by the second year they were performing at the White House for President Grant and were touring England and Europe, singing before heads of state, including Queen Victoria. The talent of the singers, and the power of this music, heretofore unknown to the world at large, propelled these young men and women, most of whom were slaves just five years prior, onto the world stage and dining as guests of honor with the royalty of Europe.
There’s A Stirrin’ In The Water was birthed over a dinner meeting between Christopher Wilkins, conductor of the Akron Symphony Orchestra, Charles Myricks, Jr., a composer, pastor, and former executive at Word Records, and Jesse Ayers, an orchestral composer and university music professor, at which Wilkins proposed that Myricks and Ayers collaborate to create a work celebrating the Spiritual. Both Myricks and Ayers took to the idea, and to each other, right away.
Myricks writes, “I sought to renew our acquaintance with several well-known traditional Spirituals, presenting them in a way that highlights their power for confronting incredible hardship with divine defiance. The Spirituals always reflected, renewed, and revealed a source of the strength of the slaves, their belief in a just, all-knowing, almighty, and loving God, who is willing and able to set captives free.”
Ayers adds, “Chuck and I agreed from the outset that this piece needed to be more than an “arrangement” for chorus with orchestral accompaniment. We wanted an integrated symphonic fabric of equally important players—the orchestra, the chorus, and the soloist—with no one element being any more or less important than the others. We worked to include the range of emotions found in the spirituals, from the songs of sorrow (“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked”), to the songs of sustaining faith (“Steal Away” and “Deep River”), to the songs of victory and praise (“God’s Gonna Set This World” and “Ain’t Got Time to Die”), with Chuck shaping the order of songs to form a story arch.
In addition to the songs presented by the chorus, the attentive listener will hear instrumental quotes of several other spirituals in the orchestral interludes, including “Go Down Moses,” “Keep Your Hand On The Plow,” and “Give Me Jesus.”
Near the end of the work, as the chorus repeatedly sings the text “Glory and Honor,” the listener will hear several glissandi from the horn section, imitative of a shofar. This is a direct reference to the silver plated ram’s horn trumpet described in Leviticus 25, to be sounded once every 50 years to annouce the Year of Jubilee, a year in which all debt was canceled and all indentured servants were set free.
The work also has several quotes from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” some obvious, some less so. Dvorak was heavily influenced by a young African American student he heard singing the halls at the National Conservatory in New York City, where Dvorak was the director. That student was Harry Burleigh, who went on to become one of the foremost arrangers of spirituals. It seemed fitting to the composers of the present work to “complete the circle” by including quotes in the fabric of their work that are drawn from phrases and harmonic progressions found in Dvorak’s “New World,” which itself was heavily influenced by the spiritual through Dvorak’s contact with Burleigh.