African and African American Composers of Organ Music 

by Lucius Weathersby
© March 2000. All rights reserved

Can we say that Jazz, the African American Spiritual, and the works of the William Grant Still, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Earl Stewart are indigenous to America? This is the source of a hot debate. I will let you decide.

Starting in the late 19th century to this present day, Western European and American music has been influenced, if not changed forever by the African rhythms, and harmonic language. From the motherland, slave ships, plantations, churches, and places of higher learning, Blacks have played a major role in the development of music. This contribution has not been acknowledged, except in recent years.

The rhythm of the African drums as well as the native tunes that were brought to America by captive Africans, lay the foundation for early musical genres developed by African Americans. This driving rhythm can be heard in the complexity of Spirituals, the Blues and Jazz. In Africa, the drum provides many functions. Among those functions are ritualistic steady beats, as those of the human heart, and complex patterns that can literally speak to those who can understand.

Adding the inherent African rhythms, along with the soul stirring melisma’d chanting, to the modified tunes of Anglo- Saxons, new forms of musical expression crystallized. These new styles are collectively referred to as African American music. The intrinsic elements aforementioned are still easily identifiable in all genres of African-derived music, the early forms of which greatly influenced the works by composers of European descent. The new musical lingua franca was openly courted by great composers such as Dvorak, Ravel, Gershwin, Bernstein, and others. Today more and more composers are noted for their inclusion of elements that are considered African American. Although the impact has been more profound in popular music, they are readily apparent in art music by many European composers of the last one and half centuries.

Composers strive to include this fresh, exciting and unique musical language in their works. From the symphony to chamber music, from opera to vocal works, at one time or another, every musical genre has employed African American and African musical language. In the essay I will discuss how Africans and African Americans have used their musical language in the composing of pipe organ music.

The use and function of the pipe organ is not limited to accompanying of religious services. For many years the pipe organ served as a vehicle for listening to transcriptions of concert music. The pipe organ player used the instrument in an "orchestral" manner. Making use of the different orchestrally imitative sounds. This practice which was common at the end of the 19th century to middle of the 20th century provided audiences with exposure to music that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to hear.

The African-American community’s base of operation has always been the church, which provided a place of stability and support. The church also allowed the transmitting of ideas by educated and prominent members of the community. These disseminating sessions were not limited to the spoken word.

Musicians, mostly church musicians, utilized those community times and social occasions for the sharing of musical ideas. These ideas were an amalgamation of musical thoughts and traditions. Many 19th and early 20th century African American churches mimicked what they found in their Anglo-Saxon counterparts’ churches. This would include the singing of Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and other denominational and sects’ hymns.

The magic however lay in the way these hymns were sung. Rhythm, harmony and sometimes the melodic line were altered for various and sundry reasons. The adding of responses to otherwise traditional hymns and the use of the spirituals which have served two-fold purposes in previous years, added to what would become the foundation of the music we call African-American music for the pipe organ.

Composers like Roland Braithwaite, Wallace Cheatham, William B. Cooper, Roger Dickerson, Mark Fax, Violet G. Bowers, Adolphus C. Hailstork, Undine S. Moore, Ralph Simpson, Kevin George and many others, have utilised the African-American spiritual as inspiration for many of their compositions for the organ. The writer is not saying that the African American Spiritual was their only inspiration. Many of the aforementioned composers have composed works which incorporate other elements.

The tie that binds many of the African-American composers for the organ is their use of rhythm. In the African community, drums were used as mediums of communication. Drums were also used in other ways. During slavery, and even later, African-American men used the pulse of the sledge hammer as they worked on the railroads for rhythmic background to keep the pace of work steady and in some cases tolerable. The primal beat is so important in the African-American and African tradition that to discount the use of it is like cutting the wrist of a person and waiting for them to die from loss of blood. Rhythm is the lifeline of African and African-American music.

In the four movement work, "Spiritual Set" by Noel Da Costa (b. 1929 of Nigerian parents), the composer uses the rhythmical beats which are found in modern Gospel music to propel his work to an exciting "Praise" ending. The second movement utilizes gospel rhythmical inflections to give a sense of "Affirmation". This affirmation would take place in the prayer service portion of an African-American church service.

Wallace Cheatham (b. 1945) uses a traditional American hymn "Over in the Beulah Land" and the African-American Spiritual "Beulah Land" as sources of inspiration in his masterpiece "Fanfare and Toccata". This work’s marriage of two different hymnological worlds is successful. The success can be heard in the use of both themes simultaneously heralding that presence of a place beyond our human existence.

Ralph Simpson (b. 1933) uses the theme of the African-American Spiritual "Jacob’s Ladder" as the cantus firmus in a J.S. Bach trio style setting. This unique gem utilizes syncopation as well, to make this simple, yet beautiful accompaniment come alive. Simpson does not stop there; he utilizes the text of the Spiritual to dictate the accompanimental pattern. As the melodic line’s text dictates that "Every round goes higher, higher," the accompaniment ascends.

As stated in Nigerian Art Music by Bode Omojola, "It should be noted that Nigerian composers have made a significant contribution to the organ repertoire or its use in choral music. Those who may be interested should look up works by Adolf Ahanoyu, Sam Akpabot (one time a pupil of Herbert Howells), Christopher Ayodele, Ayo Bankole,...."

Dr. Akin Euba, Nigeria’s foremost composer has stated that Nigeria’s use of the pipe organ and its infusion into the musical culture is due to the influence of early missionaries. Many of the larger churches, notably in Nigeria, but also in certain other African countries have fine pipe organs. The use of these organs began with the missionaries and has culminated with native born composers who have enriched the organ music literature with works which exemplify that Nigerian born composers have taken the use of the organ many steps farther, creating works which rival their European and American colleagues.

Africans and African-Americans who attended higher institutions in the Western world were exposed to European and other worldly ideas that gave them additional source of inspiration for their work. No longer was Spiritual the only inspiration, but other influences as well. African-derived elements remained signatory compositional components, but Africans and African Americans now began to utilize serial techniques, atonality, and other compositional techniques studied in their academic work.

The interaction of African and African-Americans with composers of different races and ethnical backgrounds created an environment for mutual exchange of ideas. They were influenced, and they also influenced their colleagues. Thus creating a global sound, which can be heard in the music of all composers of note. This writer maintains the thought that rhythmical usage did not change, but strengthened the characteristic nature of African and African-American composers.

The use of rhythm as a form of communication and means of inspiration is the connective force. This rhythmical element which has roots in Africa ties together the other elements (melody, harmony, accompaniment, etc.) of African and African-American composers’ works.

These elements utilize the pervasive and sometimes relentless rhythmical patterns and nuances as vehicles for expression and punctuation, providing the defining characteristics that help identify compositions by Africans and African-Americans. Rhythm is still the rallying factor or force, and its source is African.

Lucius R. Weathersby is Assistant Professor of Music at Dillard University, New Orleans, LA. As an accomplished organist he performs regularly around the US, Europe and South America.

 

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