Music for black history month

Composers from Africa and the African diaspora have for centuries performed and written music in a multitude of styles. Two genres of sacred music in particular, spirituals and gospel, are representative of African-American musical history. Both of these are important parts of the American musical canon: spirituals as a form written and performed as part of the oral tradition over centuries, and gospel as a style of music that has been integral to Black church worship from the twentieth century to the present day.

Our mass setting (Gloria, Sanctus, and Fraction Anthem) for the month of February is a set of three pieces written in the gospel style, each by a different composer born between 1949 and 1951. Carl Haywood and Carl MaultsBy are both Black Episcopal organists, while James Moore is a Catholic composer and singer. While written by different people, each of these settings shares similar elements of the musical idiom, such as rhythmic patterns and chromatic harmonies.

For this first Sunday in February, our cantors will sing a classic spiritual as the Offertory Anthem: “There is a balm in Gilead.” Like many spirituals, this melodic tune sets a text that emphasizes faith over adversity—something that points to its origins in the era of slavery. I hope we will reflect on those origins, and on the continuing legacy of racial injustice, as we perform these beautiful pieces of music in our liturgies this month.