Sunday's choir anthem will be an arrangement of an old favorite, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Originating in the southern United States in the 19th century with words and melody by slaves, this spiritual is popular thanks to its heartfelt honesty and comforting message. Ostensibly, the lyrics are about being taken up into heaven (referencing the flaming chariot whisking Elijah away). This ties in very well with Sunday's readings of persistence, a new covenant, and of going through a bad time but having it all pay off. However, as many readers may already be aware, African-American spirituals often have hidden meanings. Swing Low is one of several "code songs" referring to the Underground Railroad, a network of people who helped black slaves escape from the slaveholding states and find freedom in the North. An alternate reading of Swing Low might look something like this.
Swing low, (Come into the slaveholding states)
Sweet chariot, (the "Underground Railroad")
Comin' for to carry me home. (Come to take me to freedom in the North or Canada)
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
(I looked over the Mississippi River and what did I see?)
A band of angels (the workers of the Underground Railroad)
Comin' after me. (helping me to reach the North)
- Alternate interpretation by Steve Rouse. Reprinted from manhattanbeachmusic.com
While some don't like to focus on the hidden messages in spirituals, I think it's important to understand a piece's cultural context. Rather than an impediment to the fundamental meaning of the song, the hidden messages and history add power to the whole presentation. The struggle of the slaves for freedom is similar to ancient Israel's struggle for freedom and longing for a new covenant with God as expressed in Sunday's reading from Jeremiah. The slaves' struggle also reminds me of the Gospel lesson, the story of the judge and the persistent widow.
There is yet another aspect to Sunday's anthem. It is the work of Stephan Casurella (b. 1973), a living composer. While the melody and text (perhaps some harmonies) originated from 19th century slaves, Casurella is responsible for the arrangement we will hear on Sunday. One could say he has dressed this spiritual in its "Sunday best" while still retaining its honest heart. As part of our series of music by living composers this year, please find a biography of Casurella below. It is reprinted from sjmp.com.
Organist, conductor, and composer Stephan Casurella was appointed director of music at Christ Church Cathedral [in Cincinnati, Ohio] in 2009. In addition to overseeing all aspects of music for the cathedral's rich worship life, he conducts the cathedral choirs, shares organ playing duties with the associate director of music, and coordinates a busy concert schedule. Prior to his tenure at Christ Church, Stephan held positions at various churches, including Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Kansas City, KS (1998-2006) and Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS (2006-2009). He also taught music at Avila College (1996-2000).
Stephan was born in England, where he began studying piano, organ and music composition at an early age. After moving to the United States, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in both piano performance and music composition and in 2009 was awarded a doctor of musical arts degree in church music (organ emphasis) from the University of Kansas.
In demand as a performer and choral clinician, Stephan has appeared as a soloist with ensembles such as the Thalia Symphony Orchestra, the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra, and the Kansas City Wind Symphony. He has conducted numerous choirs, including performances with the Immanuel Lutheran Church Bach Cantata Vespers Orchestra in Kansas City, MO, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, and Collegium Cincinnati. Stephan is a published composer who has written for a wide range of media. His works have been performed by soloists and ensembles such as the choir of Chester Cathedral, England, the Thalia Symphony Orchestra, the Xavier University Concert Choir, and flutist James Hall.