I heard a voice: A history of spirituals at Wigmore Hall

Fri 8 Oct 2021

The launch of Wigmore Hall’s 2021/22 Season saw Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha take to the stage to sing ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’ – and in doing so, become the latest in what may seem a surprisingly long line of performers to bring the spiritual to the Hall. As part of Black History Month, we explore the history of these performances, which span a century of concerts given by some of the most significant Black artists of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

That said, the first recorded instance of a spiritual performed on the Wigmore Hall stage was as part of a collection of traditional songs from many lands sung by the white American mezzo-soprano Anne Thursfield. On 30 June 1919 she sang ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen’ and ‘Didn’t it rain’, returning early the following year with a similar programme. Her take on spirituals as a form of folksong was echoed by a number of white singers throughout the early 20th Century, who would often end their evening of Lieder, Italian and English art song with a ‘lighter’ section of well-known traditional songs, sometimes with the understanding that the audiences might well join in.

Though the spiritual as concert music had begun to grow in global popularity during the 1900s and 1910s, with recordings made by the Fisk Jubilee Singers as early as 1909, it was with the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance around 1920 that a vogue began to sweep the globe. Opportunities for African-American and Black British performers to appear on what had previously been a white-dominated concert stage naturally followed, though perhaps not without limitations; some of these performances seem today to have an air of the novelty or the ‘exotic’. The fact remains, though, that whether the artists felt constrained by stereotype or not, their very presence on the concert platform was unprecedented and groundbreaking.

Roland Hayes, the first recorded Black singer to include spirituals in a programme at Wigmore Hall, more than exemplified this over the course of his career. After huge success in America, he moved to England to study with George Henschel, and soon after gave his Wigmore debut on 28 October 1920. The repertoire of this concert, and of his concerts throughout the 1920s, featured French song, Lieder, spiritual arrangements and works by Black composers – a reflection not only of his determination to be regarded as a ‘serious’ concert artist bringing together what might have been seen as disparate musical worlds, but of the success he achieved in doing so.

It is too easy to assume that concertgoers at this time – themselves still mostly white – were there to be entertained by spirituals without engaging with their origins or the lives behind it, but this review from The Times of Hayes’s concert on 22 April 1921 is revealing:

'…his more invaluable gift is that of personality, which came out most in the songs of his own country. He meant them; whereas some other people who undertake them sing them because they are ‘quaint’. That practice ruins the song and stamps the singer; whoever cannot get inside a song makes it a sham and the singing a pose. … At the end of the recital a curious thing happened. Nobody moved or took his eyes off the platform. They had had reality before them, and it had gone.'

That particular concert had ended with spirituals arranged by Hayes himself, as well as his accompanist Lawrence Brown, one of the key figures in early 20th-century African-American music. Later that year Brown and Hayes, along with white British composer Roger Quilter who accompanied his own compositions, gave a concert in aid of the then African Progress Union – a Black rights association founded in London in 1918, in part to promote knowledge of Black history and culture.

1921 also saw the first concert at the Hall by the Royal Southern Singers Quartet, a vocal group in the tradition of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (who would themselves appear at the Hall in 1925). Solo performances were given by John C. Payne and soprano Abbie Mitchell, who would go on to create the part of Clara in Porgy and Bess. Contemporary accounts place composer and arranger Harry Thacker Burleigh, who had been instrumental in introducing the spiritual to Dvořák in America and is still perhaps the best-known of all the turn of the century arrangers of spirituals, in the audience.

John C. Payne returned to the Hall several times, and most of his concerts consisted entirely of Black music – alongside spirituals were songs by J. Rosamond Johnson, Will Marion Cook, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Alex Rogers, and in 1930 he was joined by Black playwright Garland Anderson who introduced his concert with a talk on the history of the spiritual in the South.

J. Rosamond Johnson himself appeared at the Hall in 1927, accompanying his frequent concert partner Taylor Gordon in a complete programme of spirituals. They were followed in 1928 by the great contralto Marian Anderson, whose recital of Italian art song, Debussy, Lieder and songs by Quilter (again accompanying his own works) ended with spiritual arrangements by Burleigh and Brown.

The breadth of spiritual repertoire during this period and into the 1930s and 40s is extraordinary –over the course of the Hall’s history, at least 119 different spirituals were performed, most of them in multiple different arrangements and the majority of them during these three decades. As time went on, any remaining aspect of ‘novelty’ to these concerts began to visibly dissipate. Black British tenor Basil Rodgers, who appeared several times in the 1930s including in a joint concert with the Antiguan pianist Bruce Wendell, introduced Wigmore audiences to the galling ‘Mamma, is massa goin’ to sell us to-morrow?’. On 11 July 1946, Trinidadian baritone Edric Connor followed a selection of spirituals with a reading of ‘Minstrel Man’ by Langston Hughes and a performance of Abel Meeropol’s lynching protest song ‘Strange Fruit’.

‘Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?’

- from ‘Minstrel Man’ by Langston Hughes

Through the 1950s and 1960s, concerts by Black singers at the Hall began to settle into a pattern similar to the concerts given by Roland Hayes in the 1920s: conventional recital repertoire of Lieder and mélodie, with a selection of spirituals at the end. Artists during this period included coloratura soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, the first Black singer to perform at La Scala; Muriel Smith, who had created the title role in Carmen Jones in 1943 and would go on to provide the vocals for ‘Bali Ha’i’ in the film of South Pacific; Ruth Reese, an African-American-Norwegian civil rights activist and writer; and trailblazing mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry, who made her Wigmore Hall recital debut in 1959 after attending masterclasses given here by Lotte Lehmann.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the automatic presence of spirituals in the programme of Black singers was beginning to fade. This may have been driven by a greater understanding of, and perhaps attendant discomfort with, the origins of the music among contemporary audiences; it was certainly also a sign that at last it was possible for Black singers to give concerts with repertoire indistinguishable from that of white artists. Though they never disappeared altogether, these songs became a true rarity on the concert platform, absent almost entirely through the 1990s and into the 2000s, when Grace Bumbry returned to give a recital in which the first half was Berlioz and Fauré, the second half Burleigh and Hall Johnson.

On 14 October 2021, Wigmore Associate Artist Gweneth Ann Rand will join Allyson Devenish, Sarah Daramy-Williams and Cathy Tyson to perform a programme entitled In the footsteps of…, inspired by Bumbry, Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman and their appearances on the Wigmore Hall stage. The concert will begin and end with spirituals, in arrangements by Hall Johnson and Florence Price among others. Transcending its inspiration, in a way this concert will in fact follow in the footsteps of many other artists to appear at Wigmore Hall over the last 100 years – a legacy that deserves to be celebrated not just this Black History Month, but for many years to come.