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The Spirit Within; how spiritual folklore has influenced western classical music


My dissertation monograph will be based on research about the way in which early spiritual music has been used by major composers of the western “classical” tradition. My research will focus on the way in which the “struggle” that the people of the southern United States, mostly the African American diaspora, have endured over the past two centuries has been immortalized in musical hymns and songs, and how this music has been interpreted, appropriated and in some cases quoted by composers. I will investigate how works like Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, A Woman’s Life by Richard Danielpour and A Child of Our Time by Michael Tippett have used the material from spiritual African American music in very unique and different ways. I will also research works by contemporary composers that use early hymns or ancient musical “objects” as the foundational blocks of the work like Folias and An Armenian Requiem by Ian Krouse and Folk Songs by Luciano Berio.This research will inform my own composition for guitar and orchestra which I will be writing simultaneously. As an example, one musical genre that has roots back to the days of slavery is gospel music. As slaves became Christians, a religion forced upon them, they began singing hymns later termed spirituals. These spirituals later evolved into gospel music.� With the abolition of slavery, a new form of music began to emerge.� Free blacks found themselves expressing their disappointment in a post-slavery society. This genre became known as the blues. I will investigate how the common thread that unites these cries for justice and laments is then used by different composers as the main inspiration for the piece in the western classical tradition. Moreover, I will provide an analysis of carefully chosen works from the canon that have a spiritual or ancient hymn or song as their central idea. How successful were these works in delivering the message embedded in this found musical object? Did they use the original source and if so, how was it presented? Did the source music influence the overall dramatic arch of the work? Is the original music represented in a more abstract way where the composer “re-wrote” it in his or her own personal voice? Examples of African American spiritual hymns that I will research are: “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, and “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child”. Simultaneously, I will make reference to earlier examples of spiritual hymns as found objects with examples from J.S. Bach and Mozart among others.

My aim with this monograph is to gain a solid understanding of spiritual hymns in western music so that my own work can be a true musical crossbreeding that embodies my own personal heritage and multiculturalism.

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