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)

June 18, 2021

Episode 4: Calvary

The American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (named after the great Afro-British composer) was a brilliant and versatile musician. As a conductor, composer, and arranger, he worked with a huge variety of performers, from Marvin Gay and Max Roach to Alvin Ailey and Harry Belafonte. But classical music was his strongest passion and one of his greatest strengths. In this episode, we look at the many compositional approaches adopted by Perkinson and fellow composer George Walker to transform spiritual source material into abstract contemporary music.

Past Programming

May 21, 2021

Episode 3: Wade in the Water

Throughout their history, spirituals have been vessels for layered, complex meanings, serving both “to heal the sin-sick soul,” and to help light the way to freedom for some. 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. In Tillis’ words, this music “pays tribute to the essence of the musical expressions of pathos and triumph over worldly obstacles encountered by a people who found hope and strength through faith in God.”

April 16, 2021

Episode 2: Swing Low

From their founding in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers championed the performance and publication of spirituals, giving this music to audiences across the globe. In this episode, we hear one of their earliest recordings, a rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in four-part harmony, as well as Adolphus Hailstork’s modernist take on the same music.

March 19, 2021

Episode 1: Deep River

For over a century, Deep River has been an iconic piece of music. It was the first spiritual Harry T. Burleigh arranged, in a version championed by legends like Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. When 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.” Deep River even left its melodic imprint on the music of William Dawson’s Largo, heard here in its modern-day premiere, in an edition commissioned by the Gardner Museum.

Upcoming Programming


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