Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
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Heroes Unite | Program Notes by Aaron Grad

Paul robeson
As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.Paul Robeson

Songs of Paul


The songs we now call spirituals developed during the time of slavery, when the music of enslaved Africans and their descendants mingled with Christian hymns. On their surface, many of these work songs and praise songs appeared to be straightforward reflections on Bible verses, and yet their words and melodies often concealed vital communications, including routes to freedom.

The transformation of spirituals from a Black oral tradition in the South to the bedrock of all American folk music really started in the 1870s with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which began as a student choir that barnstormed the country to raise money for Fisk University, a Black college in Nashville. They originated the idea of the “concert spiritual” as a genre to be sung onstage using polished arrangements, and their repertoire included anonymous songs from before the war, newly-composed songs by Black songwriters, and even songs by the popular white songwriter Stephen Foster (who wrote minstrel songs, in dialect, for blackface performers), leading to a tangled pedigree for many of these foundational American tunes.

The spread of published sheet music and the dawn of the sound recordings in the early twentieth century took spirituals even farther into the fabric of American life. One major driver of this new phase in the life of spirituals was Harry Burleigh, a singer, composer and arranger who studied for a time with Dvořák (which is how the Czech composer came to know spirituals). Burleigh’s arrangements with piano accompaniment elevated spirituals to a form of art song, codifying the natural variations of an oral tradition into the standardized versions we still recognize.

This phonograph-friendly iteration of the spiritual repertoire found its ideal interpreter in Paul Robeson (1898-1976). Born to a father who escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad and became a Presbyterian minister in New Jersey, Robeson enrolled in 1915 as the only Black student at Rutgers College. He was an All-American football player there, and when he went on to Columbia University for a law degree, he helped pay for school by playing professionally in the NFL. He practiced law briefly but soon gave it up to pursue his true passion of acting, and by 1925 he had made inroads in both stage plays and silent film. That same year, a concert he gave of spirituals accompanied by piano landed him a record contract.

When Robeson performed one of his signature programs of spirituals in New York’s Town Hall in 1927, including “Deep River” and “Go Down Moses,” The New York Times reported, “He invested them, as always, with the yearning melancholy and fervor of his race.” That was the same year that the Broadway songwriting team of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the musical Show Boat, and they had Robeson in mind when they wrote the part of Joe, the wise and world-weary dock worker. His rendition of their song “Ol’ Man River”—a faux-spiritual—in the 1936 film version of Show Boat marked the apex of his popularity in American culture.

Washington dc russian war anniversary benefit at the watergate paul robeson 0e8fde

So why is Robeson all but forgotten today?

Because in the late 1930s he embraced activism, railing against fascism around the world and drawing closer to his African heritage. He fought for anti-lynching legislation, stumped for the progressive Henry Wallace in his bid for president, delivered a speech at a communist-sponsored peace conference in Paris, and committed a host of other transgressive acts that led to him being blacklisted professionally, denied a passport, and eventually hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He tried to make an international comeback in the 1960s but his health declined, and he retired to a secluded life in Philadelphia. He was absent from the 75th-birthday bash thrown in his honor at Carnegie Hall 50 years ago, where Coretta Scott King (the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr.) lamented that Robeson had been “buried alive” because he had, even before her husband, “tapped the same wells of latent militancy” that gave rise to the Civil Rights movement.

To honor the 125th anniversary of Robeson’s birth, Orpheus commissioned Jasmine Barnes (b. 1991) to create Songs of Paul, a set of new arrangements featuring spirituals that were his calling cards, interspersed with quotes from Robeson himself. The song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is believed to have been composed by Wallace Willis, who was enslaved in Oklahoma and sent to work at a religious school; a minister there supposedly transcribed this and other songs he heard Willis singing, and he eventually passed those written versions on to the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The remaining examples are all anonymous songs with roots in the South. In the Burleigh/Robeson tradition, these arrangements bring out the full depths of emotion by leaning into the capabilities of highly-trained voices and sophisticated accompaniments.

I shall take my voice wherever there are those who want to hear the melody of freedom or the words that might inspire hope and courage in the face of despair and fear…Paul Robeson

Orpheus Insight

Jasmine Barnes, composer

This collection of spiritual arrangements consists of songs I’ve grown up hearing. Historically, these spirituals carried people of my own ancestry to hope and freedom, even though they knew they were risking their lives to do it. I felt the hopes, the fears and anxiety, the coded messages, the worry of “what’s next,” and I put those feelings into what I was writing. It made me feel more connected to myself and to those who came before me.

Musically, I was influenced by all the ways I’ve heard these songs, whether it was my grandmother singing them, in church, or in the choir at Morgan State University. It is clear to me why spirituals are the basis for American music, thanks to the spirit they carry in their folk tunes, the texts which convey a resonating and familiar pain, and the hope they pour into tomorrow.

I am grateful to Orpheus, Karen Slack, and Will Liverman, and I’m especially thankful for Paul Robeson, who paved the way for Black artists to have representation, and who inspired activist-artists to use their voices to speak for themselves and for those who cannot speak.

Jasmine Barnes

Incidental Music to Egmont, Op. 84

Arranged by Andreas Tarkmann

Alone, nearly deaf, and bullheaded as ever, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was fuming that Vienna had been occupied for the second time by the forces of a power-hungry dictator. This was 1809, just five years past when Beethoven had hailed Napoleon as a revolutionary hero who would smash through royal corruption. Then the general crowned himself emperor, and the composer tore up the title page on which he had named his Third Symphony “Bonaparte.” And now Napoleon’s army was laying waste to Beethoven’s adopted home city and making life and the pursuit of music impossible.

It was around this same time that Beethoven’s admiration peaked for the greatest writer in the German language, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). From literature to science to religion, Goethe’s writings preached self-reliance and reason, and that the way to tame the chaos of the human condition was to trust your perceptions and think for yourself.

Beethoven was understandably thrilled when he was asked in 1810 to write incidental music for a revival of Goethe’s play Egmont. Beyond his passion for the author, it aligned with Beethoven’s eagerness to get back into a theater after his only opera, Leonore, flopped in 1805 and 1806. He was working on getting it back onto the stage (which finally occurred in 1814, with revisions and a name change to Fidelio), but meanwhile this project on related themes of oppression and liberation gave Beethoven a chance to make an impression in Vienna’s theater scene.

Egmont, set in the sixteenth century, followed the tribulations of a real-life hero, the Count of Egmont, who was convicted of treason and executed after he protested the Spanish occupation in his native Flanders. If people today know anything of Egmont, it is usually through Beethoven’s overture, which took on an independent life as a concert work separate from the larger suite of theater music. Recognizing that the remaining music for Egmont deserved a way to be performed outside of a full staging of Goethe’s play, a playwright and onetime collaborator of Beethoven, Franz Grillparzer, paraphrased Goethe’s words into a collection of poetic narrations in 1834, seven years after Beethoven’s death.

An even more practical edition came out in 2005, when the German arranger Andreas Tarkmann reduced Beethoven’s full orchestra down to a compact theater-style ensemble of four winds, two brass, percussion and strings. This performance interweaves Tarkmann’s arrangement with a new translation commissioned by Orpheus from the playwright Philip Boehm, based on Grillparzer’s linking poems. Joined by the actor and human rights activist Liev Schreiber as narrator, and featuring soprano Karen Slack in two songs, Orpheus premiered this version at an outdoor concert in 2020, and it was later streamed by the PBS program ALL ARTS.


After the overture, an introductory text sets the scene at a crossbow competition, with hints of the underlying political discontent in occupied Brussels. Egmont triumphs in the contest, and as the narration continues we also learn that he has secretly won the affection of a commoner, Clara. This leads to the first song sung by Clara, where Beethoven took his cue from Goethe’s title and first line: “The drum is resounding!” Sounds of fife (piccolo) and drums (timpani) at the beginning evoke the preparations for the coming battle.

After the first entr’acte (i.e. an interlude used to cover a scene change), the next narration outlines the political conflict. The Catholic rulers of Spain, uneasy with the growing dissent in Protestant Brussels, have sent a Duke to crack down on suspected heretics. Egmont is in mortal danger, according to a warning from his friend and ally, Prince William of Orange, but the count insists that he will stay and defend local liberties.

The next scene-change music shifts the frame back to Clara and her reproachful mother. Clara insists that she will stand by Egmont, and she sings of how she is filled with joy and sorrow. After her song, Egmont appears for an ecstatic reunion, leading into the next scene change music. Their joy is short-lived, as the “Iron Duke” sent by Spain arrives in Brussels, and Egmont leaves to plead the case of his people.

The encounter with the Duke turns out to be a trap, and Egmont is taken captive and moved to a dungeon. After the next entr’acte, we find Clara in despair to know that Egmont is doomed. She dies by suicide, underscored by music from Act V.

In the penultimate section, the narrator assumes the character of Egmont, and the music takes the form of a melodrama, a format of spoken text and action over subtle background music that colors the scene’s emotions, much like the function provided today by film scores. Whipped into a frenzy by Egmont’s call for courage as the final battle approaches, the story climaxes in a “symphony of victory” that revisits music from the overture.

Karen Slack and Orpheus credit Chris Lee small for web

Orpheus Insight

Alexander Scheirle, Executive Director

When I realized that Beethoven’s incidental music to Egmont is rarely performed in the United States, I found it hard to believe that such a beautiful and dramatic work is not a staple in the repertoire. This story of standing up to glaring injustice is continuously relevant and it mirrors events happening right now all over the world. Our artistic team felt that the existing translation of the original text was dated and unrelatable, so in 2017 we explored commissioning a new translation. We found in Philip Boehm a partner who understood the issues, and who brought his own sense of storytelling as a playwright, along with his fluency in English and German. His translation keeps the original meter while bringing the story to life, such that it is almost as if the story of Count Egmont unfolded just a couple years ago. After six years of working on this project, we are absolutely thrilled we have found a way to bring this amazing piece back to life.

Orpheus violins by Chris Lee