Feel the Spirit:  A Cycle of Spirituals arranged by John Rutter for mezzo-soprano soloist, choir, and orchestra. 

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 20, at 7 PM, Cross of Christ Lutheran Church and friends will be presenting a song cycle of spirituals arranged by John Rutter for mezzo-soprano soloist, choir, and chamber orchestra. Our guest soloist is Cheryse McLeod Lewis, an accomplished, critically-acclaimed artist. She has been commended for her “stunning vocal power” and “rich, lyric mezzo-soprano.” Ms. Lewis has performed opera, broadway, and her own solo show entitled, “Then Sings My Soul: Songs and Spirituals from the American Experience.”  Find out more about Ms. Lewis here.

The songs of Feel the Spirit, at times jubilant and at other times deeply sorrowful, were born out of an unimaginable oppression of Africans in America. In these songs of the slaves there is a longing for freedom. And while one can assume, based on the text, their meaning to be a spiritual freedom, these biblical references to freedom are understood as a reference to the slaves’ own desire for escape from bondage. Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave who became one of the leading 19th-century African-American literary and cultural figures, emphasized the dual nature of the lyrics of spirituals when he recalled in Chapter VI of his My Bondage and My Freedom:

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirits, and filled my heart with ineffable sadness. The mere recurrence, even now, afflicts my spirit, and while I am writing these lines, my tears are falling. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conceptions of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. (Frederick Douglass (1855). “My Bondage and My Freedom”. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 6 June 2013.)

As we gather to remember a remarkable person who fought on the front lines of racial equality we remember that there is still work to be done. With our sympathies quickened for those who are oppressed, marginalized, and down-trodden may we be inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and the artistry of these musical works of art to go forth and work for the good of all. 

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