Sacred Music for a Sacred Space 2022 Program Notes

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was joined by the Nathaniel Dett Chorale for this concert on April 15, 2022. The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, musicologist and PhD candidate. who wrote on behalf of both the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Nathaniel Dett Chorale leadership.

When the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Nathaniel Dett Chorale planned this concert in the summer of 2021, the central goal was to bring our two musical communities together. We hoped to learn from each other, to make music together, and to consider how two seemingly disparate sacred music traditions – African-American spirituals and Eastern Orthodox chant – might share connections and insights into human suffering and into the necessity of hope and liberation. These are still the goals of tonight’s concert, and yet, given Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the second half of tonight’s program obviously stands in a much different context than it did in the summer of 2021.

The invasion of Ukraine at the time we were beginning rehearsals for this concert prompted extensive internal discussion and reflection, and necessitates setting the performance of the Rachmaninoff in a context for today. We do not believe that the art, music, and people of Russia are responsible for the actions of a tyrant. Indeed, many Russians have publicly denounced and protested the invasion of Ukraine at great personal risk. Notably, All-Night Vigil also has a history of subversion: the sixth movement, “Rejoice, O Virgin,” was the basis for Russian protest group Pussy Riot’s protest anthem “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away.” Furthermore, Rachmaninoff, who declared himself to be in self-exile from Russia in 1917 and never returned, is not associated with the current Russian regime and performing his work does not benefit the Russian state.

We have added Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine to tonight’s program. Set to a text by Oleksandr Konysky, the 1885 hymn is a plea to God to “protect our beloved Ukraine.” In addition to being sung as a hymn in Ukrainian Orthodox church services, it was also performed frequently during the Ukrainian War of Independence (1917-1920). We sing it tonight – as have many ensembles throughout the world over the past month – to express solidarity and support to the Ukrainian people, diaspora, and state.

The first half of the program, of course, addresses a different sacred music tradition, and with it, another form of oppression. African-American spirituals developed as an oral tradition among enslaved Africans in the United States from 1619-1865 (Canada, it should be noted, also enslaved both African and Indigenous individuals from 1671-1834). Spirituals took the language and teachings of Christian traditions taught on plantations and transformed them into messages and meanings that, in African-Canadian composer Nathaniel Dett’s words, allowed enslaved people to “give voice to [their] inmost soul’s desire, without fear of arousing suspicion even when in the presence of [their] master.” Through the spiritual, it was possible to participate in subversion and resistance in plain sight. The songs were used to pass on secret codes about escape through the Underground Railroad (“Steal Away”), to acknowledge unthinkable pain and suffering or identify with a suffering figure (Crucifixion and Mary Was the Queen of Galilee), and to find moments of hope and comfort (Don’t You Weep No More, Mary and Go Not Far From Me, O God). The spirituals on this program take us, the audience, through a journey that encompasses all of these components of the spiritual’s history. Yet most importantly, they collectively acknowledge the reality of the spiritual as being, in Mr. Brainerd Blyden-Taylor’s words, “a music that helped sing freedom into existence.” While slavery has been abolished, our society is still not free of rampant racial inequities, and so, as Mr. Blyden-Taylor explains, spirituals “are sung still, because there is still work to be done.”

Quotations from Nathaniel Dett are taken from his 1936 essay “Understanding the Negro Spiritual.”