Witness: Spirituals and the Classical Music Tradition

Programs at the Gardner

This series of free, digital programs explores the ways some Black American composers have found inspiration in the rich tradition of spirituals. The Gardner Museum builds on its ongoing partnership with the Boston-based ensemble Castle of our Skins to create four short videos exploring this repertoire. 

The Museum’s collection includes Isabella’s personal copy of Afro-American Folksongs (1914), which features arrangements of spirituals by the eminent Harry T. Burleigh. As a composer, arranger, and performer, Burleigh was at the epicenter of an early group of composers who championed spirituals as “pure gold.” You can learn more about this book on the blog

This video series aims to lift up some of the enormous body of music created by generations of composers who drew on that powerful river of song, which W. E. B. Dubois said “stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas." (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903)

Watch Episodes

Episode 1: Deep River

hen composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor published his 24 Negro Melodies for piano in 1904, he called Deep River “the most beautiful and touching melody of the whole series.”

Episode 2: Swing Low

Hear one of the earliest recordings from the Fisk Jubiliee Singers, a rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, as well as Adolphus Hailstork’s modernist take on the same music.

Episode 3: Wade in the Water

This episode focuses on Wade in Water, with a blues-inflected performance by The Blind Boys of Alabama and a jazz-influenced fantasia by composer Frederick Tillis.

Episode 4: Calvary

We look at the many compositional approaches adopted by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and fellow composer George Walker to transform spiritual source material into abstract contemporary music.


About Castle of our Skins

Born out of the desire to foster cultural curiosity, Castle of our Skins is a concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music. From classrooms to concert halls, Castle of our Skins invites exploration into ​Black heritage and culture, spotlighting both unsung and celebrated ​figures of past and present. 

Resources for Further Inquiry