2013-03-24 Notes from the Bench

“Were You There?” Arranged by Harold Friedell
A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James Gerber, Music Associate

The beloved African-American spiritual Were You There? is among those hymns and songs that are closely linked with Holy Week, which we begin today with our celebration of Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion.  This spiritual is one example of African cultural heritage interacting with and influencing European-based cultures within the American context.  Today, this hymn is not exclusive to African-American congregations; it appears in the hymnals of most Christian denominations and is a part of those communities’ singing traditions.  Many of us are familiar with the portions of this text that speak of the torment suffered by Christ, however, in its entirety, the text of this hymn covers his Passion, Death, and Resurrection.  With each call, “were you there?” the worshiper is personally involved and may relate to each of the events of Christ’s Passion.  

The familiar melody associated with this text is believed to have been spontaneously composed by slaves during the nineteenth century. It is among a genre of spirituals characterized by their slow tempos, long phrases, and sustained tones.  Prior to the Civil War, melodies such as this would have been passed on through oral tradition; little was done to write down the spiritual songs of African-Americans.  Were You There? first appeared in print in 1899 in a collection titled “Old Plantation Hymns,” complied by William E. Barton and published in Boston.

Today, the choir will sing a setting of this spiritual arranged by Harold Friedell (1905-1958) in 1938.  Friedell was among the foremost church musicians, organists, and teachers in New York City during the early to mid-twentieth century, holding prominent organist positions at Calvary Church and St. Bartholomew’s Church.  Friedell was professionally certified with the Fellowship of the American Guild of Organists (FAGO) in 1929 and awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Music from Missouri Valley College in 1957.  In addition to his church duties, he was active as a recitalist performing a wide variety of repertoire and taught as part of the faculty of both theSchool of Sacred Music of Union Theological Seminary, where he taught composition and improvisation, and at the Guilmant Organ School.

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