Sprituals of Liberation
Anthony Kelley (b. 1965)
THE STORY as told by the composer
Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of formerly enslaved American descendants of Africans from unimaginable state-sanctioned brutality and oppression. This symphonic reflection, titled Spirituals of Liberation, is in many ways a sequel to my 1999 piano concerto, Africamerica, which meditates on the Middle Passage. The three movements of Spirituals of Liberation explore in musical terms the conditions of forced, free labor, the contemplation of loss and hope by the enslaved, and finally, the solemn embrace by African Americans of their newly granted freedom.
The piece expresses rhythmic, melodic, and cultural elements that sustained the Americans who endured centuries of slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865. These include syncopation, cycles of repetition with a difference, work songs that accompanied hard labor, memory and reverence for ancestors, and hope and resilience in the face of pernicious exploitation. The tunes are all original, but in the style of 19th-century Black folk music. Felix Mendelssohn composed “Songs Without Words” in his day; these movements can be considered “Spirituals Without Lyrics.”
The first movement, “Work Song (for a Post-Terrestrial Railroad),” is the longest. It begins with an eruptive expression of shock over the proposition of enslavement, followed by a resignation to multiple simultaneous levels of labor. This consisted of both physical work—from the vigorous activity of laying railroad ties to the intricacies of making a lace tablecloth—and the psycho-socio-intellectual labor of crafting a framework of hope and demands for constitutional justice within the same society that subjected Black citizens to shackles. The movement alternates and intertwines a main “work song” tune and a “free” labor theme, fortified by a hammered counter-beat on the anvil, which expand to an unsustainably explosive, complicated state before a reset of tone and mood. At the end of this rigorous movement, the main “work song” tune returns inverted to portray mastery, as Ginger Rogers put it, “backwards and in heels.” Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad liberated many souls, and this movement celebrates their path beyond the underground and even beyond our terrestrial realm.
The second movement, “Elegy for the New Blues People,” is a song of elegy and mourning for the many who trod the path towards the liberty that we can acknowledge today. Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka, defines “blues people” as the generation of children and grandchildren of the enslaved Africans who, rather than concern themselves with the nostalgic return “home” to Africa, acknowledge their geographical immediacy and vow to make America itself a better home, regardless of the cruelty of their situation.
The third movement, “Never Forget,” is a lush, noble melody with heroic harmony that expresses the celebration that the newly freed American citizens would have felt in 1866 and sounds out the importance of telling the complete story of our nation and its development.
Composed on the heels of a devastating and oppressive pandemic, perhaps Spirituals of Liberation also inspires a more empathetic perspective on these enslaved ancestors, enhancing our appreciation of freedom as we explore the possibilities of the better future.
• In each movement, a central melodic theme around which harmony and texture shift to greater complexity, climax, and resolution: repetition with a difference
• In the first movement, a blues-inflected melody based on a diminished scale: the “work song”
• A vamp that begins in the bassoons and is answered by the horns, then expands to the trombones to accompany the work song
• A “short-lonnnnng” syncopated motive that pervades the movement
• In the second movement, a gentle, mournful melody in the oboe, comprised of small leaps upward that build to a large descending leap
• A brief moment of “sunlight” introduced by the brass in duple time
• In the third movement, a more contemporary-sounding melody, complicated by moments of dissonance, culminating in a tutti chorale-style variation
• A feeling of “freedom” expressed in the floating, elegant clarinet line
• A dance-oriented middle section
• In the Coda, elements from the first and second movements that reappear in the third movement, now set in a major key
Three flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings
Notes © 2022 Anthony Kelley