Handel’s Messiah is one of the most beloved, notorious and studied oratorios in all of classical music literature. Having performed it in Switzerland, Japan and throughout the United States, it has been an important career work for me as it has for myriad musicians. Unlike the historic 132nd Messiah Festival of the Arts in Lindsborg, Kansas where A Spiritual Messiah™ premiered, I have lost count of the number of Messiah performances I have performed.
What is not lost, however, is the undeniable reach and universal spirit of Handel’s Messiah. The same can be said about the African-American spiritual and the music chosen for the A Spiritual Messiah program. A Spiritual Messiah was conceived as a new way to present spirituals and to pay homage to Handel’s work and the Lindsborg Festival’s dedication to it.
To put things in perspective, while Handel and his librettist were composing and conceiving the uniquely meditative oratorio on the different aspects of the Christian messiah in the mid-1700s, the American Negro slaves were hearing the Christian messianic message and formulating their own meditations and melodies on the subject in secret camp meetings. A Spiritual Messiah also pays homage to all the slaves who made a messiah-like sacrifice and whose corn ditties, field hollers, and shouts evolved into the spirituals, gospels, and theater songs that are part of the A Spiritual Messiah program.
The program reflects a diversity of spiritual arrangers (African-American, Caucasian, male, female, living and past composers) and the diversity of spiritual arrangements from the traditional choral a cappella style arrangements of John W. Work and Marvin Mills to the gospel-style arrangements of Roland Carter and Rev. Todd O’Neal to the more contemporary styles of Rosephanyne Powell and Joseph Joubert. The solo, duo and ensemble spiritual arrangements also capture a wide range of styles with the simple chordal accompaniment found in “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” to the soothing berceuse in “Sister Mary” and the distinct ragtime elements heard in Uzee Brown, Jr.’s “O, Redeemed”.
Like Handel’s work, A Spiritual Messiah is in three parts, requires four skilled soloists (SATB) and a concert choir, and follows the basic liturgical year scenes or themes: Advent, Christmas, the Life of Jesus (Part I); Lent, Easter, Christ’s Ministry (Part II); Redemption, Victory over Death, Glorification of the Messiah (Part III). There are other purposeful parallels to Handel’s work, such as opening A Spiritual Messiah with a slow, declamatory spiritual/gospel (“Over My Head”) sung by the tenor soloist which leads into a more lively section just as Handel’s opening arioso “Comfort Ye, My People” transitions into the florid tenor air, “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted.” Culminating A Spiritual Messiah with an arrangement of the spiritual “Amen” also mirrors Handel’s closing his work with the famous “Amen” fugue.
Lastly, A Spiritual Messiah was conceived to offer a professional, collaborative, accessible, communal and educational experience as well as a spiritual one to any willing choir – amateur, semi-professional or otherwise.