Spirituals and Gospels

Spiritual songs of the African-American population have their roots in the southern parts of the USA. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, they spread to the Northern US states and then to England and all over Europe, mainly through student choirs. Originally, they represented the non-liturgical spiritual singing of the African-American communities. Earlier these were monophonic chants that occurred at the close of prayer meetings, in which the dominant melody was supported by rhythmical clapping and stamping of the singers. These forms never had fixed interpretation. Instead, they called for creative improvisations on the rhythmical and metrical structure of the chants. The decorating of melodic lines, somewhat resembling the ornamental practice of Western European musical culture, was essential to this method of interpretation. As a result of such ornamentation, entire heterophonic areas and micro-interval intonations were created. This interpretation was also accompanied by movement, such as dance and rhythmical swaying of the participants. The communal aspect of their performance is a defining characteristic of this genre. Besides black spirituals, there are also white spirituals that originated in the USA under the influence of the imported culture of Anglo-Saxon immigrants and which, apart from their religious contents and collective nature, do not have much in common with the black spirituals.

Since the end of the 19th century, adaptations of spiritual melodies based on the principles of Western European composed music began to appear. Chamber arrangements with piano, orchestral arrangements, and choral arrangements, which today are probably the most widespread of the three, began to appear. The latter follow the call-and-response nature of the spirituals with combinations of the solo and four-voice choir. Undoubtedly it was these artistic arrangements of the spirituals that contributed to their widespread performance and popularity.

At the end of the 19th century, the spirituals were systematically collected by African-American universities. This is somewhat analogous to the systematic collection of folk songs which Leoš Janáček undertook at the same time in Moravia, Czech Republic. As the folk songs did for Janáček, the spirituals provided significant inspiration for the works of many composers working in the USA (for example, we can cite Antonín Dvořák´s American period and the melodic inspiration of spirituals reflected in the Largo movement of his Symphony from the New World). After further decades of this activity, a rich collection was entered in the American Library of Congress. In the course of the 20th century, many spirituals became jazz standards used mainly by the traditional jazz ensembles for improvisation (the spiritual ("When the Saints Go Marchin´In" is a typical example).

Davison´s pleasing arrangements, with their riche harmonies and extensive tonal palette and offering ample space for improvisation, provide opportunities for interpretation totally unique in the Czech environment. Davison resolves the transformation of the original call-and-response chants in a interesting manner. He assigns the original responses of the choir to the instruments. The works are also notable for their structure, combining vocal parts with well-written instrumental intermezzos. But it is the personality of the leader, not to mention his voice, that is the most important component of the Davison ensemble. Davison possesses a resonant, professionally trained voice. 

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