Tracing development from spirituals to gospel

Workshop: Horace Clarence Boyer teaches about changes that African-American sacred music has gone through from slavery to today.

March 18, 2002|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

Horace Clarence Boyer is a teacher, musician, director, performer, arranger, lecturer, historian and entertainer when he shares his knowledge of the origins of African-American sacred music.

Even when he's not lecturing, his resume includes all of those vocations, plus a few more: researcher, author and editor -- all related to African-American music.

"Music is imbedded in our culture," Boyer said. "From the 1950s to the present, gospel music has become king. I am trying to show that the churches need to blend different styles of music."

A pre-eminent authority on the history of African-American music, Boyer captured the diverse audience of 150 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Saturday with his lively presentation to local choir directors, religious music programmers and ministers of music.

He sang, played the piano and directed them through the singing of new arrangements of Negro spirituals. He engaged the audience with jokes and gestures as he wove in the history of African-American music from the time of the first slaves in the United States to the present.

It was part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Community Outreach Committee's eighth annual ministry of music workshop, "From the Negro Spiritual to the Gospel."

History and development

Boyer said he wanted to accomplish two goals: share a history of black American sacred music from the time when slaves became Christians and trace the development of the different song types from the 1750s to the present. "From the concert hall to the cornfield, there is an array of [African-American] music," he said.

Boyer explained the differences between spirituals and gospel music and how gospel had evolved. He said the spirituals were 19th-century religious folk songs of the slaves who were seeking personal freedom.

Gospel songs are 20th-century sacred songs that were conceived as a way for people to move into economic freedom.

"Spirituals spoke to the community; gospel speaks to one person," he said.

Musician Thomas A. Dorsey became the principal proponent of gospel music when he wrote the hymn, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" in 1932, Boyer said. "That song changed the world of music," he said.

Dorsey, who died in 1993, was considered the father of gospel and also wrote the hymns "Peace in the Valley" and "Sweet Bye and Bye."

`An artist'

Boyer was in the Baltimore area about four years ago to conduct music workshops at two churches. That's when Lorenzo Handy first heard Boyer.

Handy is the chairman of the religious task force for the BSO's outreach committee and recommended Boyer for the workshop.

"I had envisioned that [Boyer] would draw people in with his knowledge and ability," Handy said. "He will inspire the audience to make music live at their churches."

Marco K. Merrick, choir director at Douglas Memorial Community Church, brought 20 members of his gospel and chancel choirs to hear Boyer.

"Boyer is an artist," Merrick said. "It is a real privilege to have him here. I really value educators who can share their wealth of knowledge the way he has. This has been a whole musical experience, with hymns, spirituals, gospels and anthems."

Edna Jean McCaslin of Towson Presbyterian Church and Alice Berardesco, a Baltimore County music teacher, were "thoroughly enjoying" the workshop, along with 12 church groups of different denominations.

"This gives us an idea of the growing culture of gospel," Berardesco said. "Spirit has been captured in this music. It's infectious."

Boyer, who earned a master's and a doctorate degree from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York, has been a professor of music theory and African-American music at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

He has been music director of several choirs and ensembles at several Northeastern colleges.

He and his brother have performed gospel music across the country.

Boyer has researched African-American vocal music and published articles in music journals. He also has contributed arrangements of Negro spirituals and gospel songs to a supplemental hymnal for the Episcopal Church.

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