Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Black American Musical Journey Viewed Through a Classical Lens [Handel's Messiah]

For classical music purists reading this blog post, I suggest you run for the hills, because what you read may offend your Euro-centric sensibilities. Like those who consider squash a sport for the "upper classes" (in England, it is rugby which is the high brow sport, but Americans don't know that), you might think of European composers as the epitome of culture and taste. For some, it may come as a surprise to learn that Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (ANT-oh-neen DVOR-zhahk), a European composer who spent time in the United States, in the late 19th Century, credited Negro spirituals as the foundation of American music.  Tasked with helping to divine an American aesthetic in music, Dvorak was invited by the National Conservatory of Music to help create the sound we now know as quintessentially American, in compositions by Aaron Copeland,  George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington, all indirect beneficiaries of Dvorak's teachings.

Dvorak is quoted as saying: 

I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called "Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed by this idea, and it has developed into a settled conviction. I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans.
Dvorak's New World Symphony: All About Negro Spirituals

Black Americans give each other knowing glances when we see Eminem, Britney Spears, Josh Stone and other white singers do darn-good great imitations of Black soul. And we don't bat our eyelashes when rumors abound that Beethoven was a mulatto of mixed race heritage, or that our Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, was literally father to his Black mistress's children, making the last name Jefferson a mainly Black last name.  Like many things about the United States, Black contributions to our country's greatness are dwarfed by the White-washed stories that literally erase us from history (even Paul Revere's lithograph of the revolutionary war deleted the image of a Black man who worked in his printing press).  White historians have tended to gloss over or ignore American history that shows Black ingenuity, and our contributions die on the vine.  Lewis and Clarke would have died early on were it not for their black slave, York, who helped the explorers navigate through the Midwestern Indian territories "discovering" America. Granted, York, didn't have the resources to go exploring on his own, but, he would likely have preferred to be free to travel as he pleased instead of how his masters pleased.

All that to introduce "Handel's Messiah," Black American style.

As much as it can be commercialized and imitated by very talented and famous white singers--when it’s all said and done, your heart will feel Aretha, Whitney, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, and Mary J. Blige, when you hear true “soul.” It is first a Black thing, then an American thing.

Black American singing and dancing is born of a deep suffering, a pain, an ancestral cry that is
incomprehensible, even to themselves, unless it is somehow deciphered and explained. Mervyn Warren, composer and arranger, executive produced and co-produced, with Quincy Jones, one of the most revolutionary adaptations of a classical piece ever--and not likely possible of imitation--that attempts to explain the black music phenomenon. In true fashion, the composer re-arranged a great classical masterpiece into “Handel’s Messiah, A Soulful Celebration,” producing a definitive anthology of black music, while at the same time carrying the European and Western tradition that is antithetical to the African origins of Black American music.

The black life of “adaptation” is certainly evident in the black majority and united belief in Christianity, a belief that my ancestors' succumbed to after their own modes of worship were  forcefully eviscerated once they were transplanted to American soil. Separated from the family social fabric that creates traditional forms of worship, the Black American has had to find religion on his own, and Christianity won out, as it did with most initial waves of our country’s immigrant transplants.

Music and history are combined in this compact disc that celebrates George Frideric Handel’s original “Messiah, an Oratorio for Four-Part Chorus of Mixed Voices, Soprano, Alto Tenor and Bass Soli and Orchestra or Organ." Mr. Warren combines the Black R&B tradition, heavily steeped in gospel and “making a joyful noise” -- gospel-based religious overtones--and very successfully foists them on a European musical masterpiece.

A European Who Loved Negro Spirituals and Music
How is Handel’s “Messiah” the pretext through which to understand Black music? This statement exposes an inherent paradox. Whereas there have been claims that Beethoven was a mulatto of mixed African ancestry, I have heard no claims that Handel was anything but a German who transplanted himself to England where he was welcomed as a composer for the Royal family. This German/English music could hardly have an African undercurrent to it. So, how can Mervyn Warren and Quincy Jones actually translate Handel for Black or other R & B music lovers?

To speak of Handel is to think of rarefied settings of choirs and orchestras somberly participating in a song-fest, usually in a Church or Music Hall, during Christmas or Easter, rejoicing in “the Messiah,” otherwise known as “Jesus Christ.” According to Schirmer’s Editions of Oratorios and Cantatas, the original composition reflected the limited talents of the musicians and choirs who were to perform the work. In 1741, Handel was in Dublin, Ireland when he composed the masterpiece, in twenty-four days. The Schirmer introduction to the oratorio cites that: “in his choruses [Handel] did not go beyond four-part writing, and kept his orchestra within the most modest limits, so that no instrument except violin and trumpet plays a solo part, and oboe and bassoon do not appear at all in the score…”
Messieurs Warren and Jones eschew the supposed limitations of Handel’s original work, bringing synthesized music, marimbas, tambourines, and the music of rhythm and blues to lift Handel’s Messiah to “funkdom;” remaining supremely reverential and in keeping with the original music.

Handel’s Messiah is a boastful yet contemplative piece of masterful proportions--one of the great
musical wonders of the world. Mr. Warren takes a great piece and “funkdafies” it for you. He takes a
European musical sensibility and raises it to levels so strat-o-spheric that you spontaneously want to “rock hard” to Handel. It is very hard to sit still while listening to his CD. In fact, if you have any soul in you (and you should, if you’re an American, black, white, yellow, brown, red, or any other
[stupidly-named] persuasion, because chances are, even if you weren’t born with it, you inherited some of it over the years listening to American commercials) you will be moved by the music. And if you’re religious, you’ll feel it even more deeply, because it will affirm everything you take on faith. But if you’re like me, a wandering doubter looking for a spiritual resting place, you’ll begin to think that maybe Jesus has something going for him, after all. At least while you’re listening to the music. For me it works because I have a decided classical sensibility (more romantic than classical, actually) and I also like to groove to R & B, hip-hop and even rap (as my earlier blog about rap attests).

To find an album that uses the classical notes of a great tradition, and then funks it up is to describe the impossible. The closest I can come to doing so is to use the analogy of falling from the sky and finding out that -- you can stay afloat. It is a glorious feeling. When I listen to Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Stravinsky, Mahler, composers who are, to me, the equivalent of Hard Rock classical composers, I usually can’t stay still. I tend to conduct, bop my head up and down, and sing back to them. But rarely do I get a chance to hear them funked up five notches, with a bass rhythm, percussion, and soulful voices as I do here -- well, you just have to groove and actually dance to it.

The songs of the contemporary version sequentially correspond, more or less, to the original oratorio, which is in three parts. The majority of the songs are in Part I of Handel’s original oratorio (often called the Christmas portion), and the titles remain faithful to the original. Overall, Messieurs Warren and Jones put 16 songs on their compact disc, packing it with a fervor that will whip you into a religious fever (whether you’re a believer or not). Here’s a sampling of some of the songs in Handel’s piece that appear in the “sequel.”

Part I
1. Overture
2. Comfort ye my people
3. And the glory of the Lord
4. Thus saith the Lord
5. But who may abide the day of His coming
6. And He shall purify
7. Behold, a virgin shall conceive
8. O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion
9. For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth
10. For unto us a Child is born

The feat of putting classical sounds to R&B is spectacularly achieved. The album's purpose is made known in the Overture, which is aptly titled: “Overture: A Partial History of Black Music.” To hear it is to hear the genesis of the Black American historical experience put to music. The Overture begins with a tribal drum echoing at night and the rattle of a snake, alerting Africans that an enemy has arrived to take them from their sacred shores. You can "see" them running through the brush, as they try to outrun their eventual captors. Next, you feel the moan of the slaves on the ships, in the fields, in the whole diaspora, crying and feeling the pain of separation from their land, their families, and their African heritage, all accompanied by the wail of a mother’s voice humming a melody of pain. From that we segue to Ragtime and Scott Joplin, the blend of horns and piano that herald the eventual big band sound which provided the basis for American Jazz. The brief overture manages to compact several other musical genres in its mix, still staying true to the melody of the original Overture, but adding gospel music, with tambourines, and a slow groove taking us to R&B music, funky sounds, garage music… it is absolutely wild.

The music matches the lyrics of Handel’s original music, word for word, and mixes in “ad lib” where necessary, usually in the form of Rap. The compact disc boasts some of the most celebrated R&B and gospel names: Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Patti Austin, Stevie Wonder, Take 6, The Sounds of Blackness, The Richard Smallwood Singers, The Yellow Jackets, Al Jarreau, the Harlem Boys Choir, and Tevin Campbell. Each accomplishes their solo or chorus with dexterity, perfect pitch and restraint, and bombast as is needed (and there is a lot of it, so you’ve been forewarned). The music will yell at you, scream at you, until you start to believe in its Word!

Mr. Warren’s talents were recently showcased at a 25th Gala Celebration at the nation’s music hall, the Kennedy Center. I don’t know anything about this man and cannot do justice to his biography or musical background, so I’ve taken the liberty of quoting verbatim, the bio of this truly gifted musician, which was printed in the Kennedy Center Honors program. I give due props to Mr. Jones (of whom I will speak more below), but it appears that Mr. Warren’s genius inspired and marshaled this production. I also believe that, as a lesser known composer, he should be given his due credit for a masterful work worthy of wholesale flattery and unadulterated adulation:

"Conductor Mervyn Warren's multiple roles as a record producer, arranger, film composer, songwriter, pianist, and vocalist, have brought him five Grammy Awards, six Dove Awards, and two Gospel Music Workshop of America Awards. He has written songs and arrangements for artists including Quincy Jones, Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, Dianne Reeves, and Johnny Mathis, and contributed and scored sound track music for several movies.

Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, an all-star African-American version of the classic work, for Mr. Warren also served as executive producer and producer. He is working on music for the upcoming film The Preacher's Wife (Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington). His classical pieces have been performed by orchestras including the Nashville Symphony, which he has conducted, and he has arranged music for and conducted many orchestral and choral recording sessions."

Written and produced in 1992,  “A Soulful Celebration” was revolutionary. To hear religious themes championed in musical rap-pentameter was a novelty back then. In most of the songs, Mervyn Warren, throughout the album, takes a traditional first couple notes of Handel’s oratorio, and then turns the remaining notes on their axis, wheeling and spinning them around to make a variation on the melody’s theme. My absolute favorite song [to blast at full volume] is “He Shall Purify,” a chorus-dominated song that is so inspirational that you’re likely to start flying by virtue of the crescendos. If you can listen to this song and still stand still, I’ll nail your coffin shut for you – because you must already be dead. “He Shall Purify,” sung by Tramaine Hawkins, is one of the most moving songs on the album. For anyone who is a believer, this should send you to heaven. A clear soulful soprano sings a beautiful solo, backed by a choir that crescendos in ever higher and louder tones, with male voices giving strength and adding volume to the religious theme of purification and cleansing (although I can’t say what it means to be “purified” – who cares, I wanted it just by listening to the song. Throw me some bubble bath this way!).

Patti Austin's lovely dulcet tones are very evident when she sings “But Who Shall Abide the Day of His Coming,” a song which starts simply enough but becomes a very poignant song of growing momentum that makes you feel you’ve discovered Him. Another beautiful rendition is vin Campbell’s melodious tenor voice singing, “My Redeemer, I know he liveth.”

Although I have purposefully highlighted Mr. Mervyn Warren’s genius, it almost goes without saying that Quincy Jones’ name carried much weight in making this the seminal masterpiece that it is. This man is a living legend. I have taken him too much for granted, even as a film enthusiast, unaware of the breadth of his role as a contemporary film composer. I have listed the number of films he’s scored, to allow you to witness his epic role in the film industry.


I wrote the article about the Messiah for in 2001(titled, "Another 'Handle' on G.F. Handel's 'Messiah' - Funk-da-fied? A GIFT FOR THE HOLIDAYS), but as that site is now defunct, I have resurrected it, with updated information. I cannot sing this album's praises enough, obviously, and am submitting this blog because I hope that people might purchase the CD for the upcoming holidays. I do not know anyone remotely affiliated with the composers, producers, marketers, or affiliates of the album, so I'm not publicizing this for any royalties. I just want to share my opinion about this [great and] controversial (to some) musical work of art.


Speakout08 said...

Wow! You do great justice to this epic, monumental feat of musical genius. This is probably my favorite album of all time. While reading this, I heard the songs in my head . Great synopsis. You are not afraid to speak your truth, which many of us agree with, by the way. What a breath of fresh air (as much as you can access in this polluted world) .

Many of us strive to be true to ourselves and be our authentic selves. Most of us only reveal our true eclectic selves to family and close friends. That is one thing that is wrong in this society.

Blacks, in particular feel stifled in this country, because we feel that we have to portray ourselves in public in a certain way, to counter the negative stereotypes propagated by politicians and the media. We have to suppress our blackness in the public eye, all the way from the way we wear our hair, to the way we speak. Being true to our cultural milieu, allows us the freedom to not be so self-conscious and to be experiential, unique and spontaneous. This is what this society laments, and publicly decries, yet tries to mimic, control and capitalize upon.

They hate us because they are jealous at our uniqueness, are threatened by us, and want to be like us in many ways. We bring a colorful display to this world in many different ways.

I digress. The only criticism I have around this album, has nothing to do with the music. It has to do with Quincy Jones marrying a white woman. Not to single him out, because Lionel Richie, Seale, Michael Jordan , the list is too long, have all done the same. He wants to share his success with a white woman, given our traumatic history and struggle, and the difficulties that many wonderful black educated women have finding a successful, or accomplished man, who is not intimidated by her accomplishments. A woman who would appreciate your talents and prowess more than any white woman could, because she knows of your struggle.

I am not prejudice and I am not against inter-racial marriage. I am just disappointed when black men do this, because so many black women are being left behind and by themselves. The odds of a black woman finding a successful man, in all respects, are diminished every time a black man marries outside of his race. And why is it that so many professional men are doing this ? That is another discussion. Suffice it to say, that in most other cultures people embrace their own, because of a sincere appreciation and love of their culture and an inherent bonding that cannot be mimicked by one from any other race . That is what has led to the propagation of the races. That was the intention of creation, to keep the world as colorful and diverse as it is. People of a certain race seek their own because they look for the familiar; someone who reminds them of themselves or someone they know and hold dearly. These tendencies are behind the teleological explanation for why we are attracted to certain people. There is a bigger force at play; a spiritual explanation .

This warrants further exploration and evaluation, but I will mention that the black post-traumatic slave syndrome and epi-genetics are in conflict with this inter-racial phenomena. I know that some people may think that this is way off topic, but is it really? We can express our black cultural ism in the arts, but want to escape from who we are in the public eye, or shake off our blackness. Black men denounce their mothers when they don't choose to be with a black woman. They try to distance themselves from who they are. They have issues that stem from post-traumatic slave syndrome and until that is reconciled., there will always be an attempt to camouflage ones true nature by suppressing it, which is what many black men do when they marry a white or other non-black woman. They suppress who they really are.

VL Towler said...

You've given me at least 3 new topics to blog about in your passionate and heartfelt comments! Thanks for sharing!

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