On An American Spiritual

David R. Holsinger
TRN Music Pulisher, 1991


During the pre-Civil War period Negro slaves developed spirituals, then generally called plantation melodies. However, the first collection of Negro spirituals, entitled Slave Songs of the United States, was not published until 1867.  Negro spirituals after the Civil War branched into two streams.  One stream – the grassroots spiritual continued among the common people.  The other stream – the concert arrangements of spirituals harmonized in ‘correct’European style – was spread through popular performances of groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers (Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee), beginning about 1871.

While the grassroots spiritual continued to be sung with less polished harmony and free improvisations, the more acceptable concert versions became known to the public at large.  As they appear in current hymnals, their harmonies are more akin to the concert versions than to folk practices.

The earliest of the spirituals to be published in a hymn collection seems to be Were You There (1911) in Songs of Evangelism published by Standard Publishing Co. of Cincinnati. However, several modern hymnals refer to an earlier adaptation by John and Frederick Work, about 1907.

Performance Notes

In Holsinger’s Hymnsong Series, the listener may notice that On An American Spiritual (1991) is a surprising departure from his previous Hymnsong compositions.  We expect the plaintive opening (“Were you there when they crucified my lord?...”) and majestic closing portions (“Were you there when He rose up from the dead?...), but the chaotic, brutal nature of the center section would seem greatly out of place until one reminds oneself of the lyrics of this Easter lament., where the center verses recount how they nailed Him to a tree and laid Him in the grave.  With this in mind, we realize that Holsinger has composed a variation very dependent on extra musical events (the traditional verses) for inspiration and understanding.

Musical Challenges

Care should be taken to perform all three sections in completely different styles.  The opening section should be warm, full, and melancholy, filled with anxiety and tension as though discussing the crucifixion.  In the second section, the writing implies anger and frustration.  The saxophone ostinato needs to be aggressive but not the most prominent voice. Trombone smears and percussive effects should be played assertively and with a little bit of abandon.

Finally, the third section is the majestic ascendance into heaven.  Horn and alto saxophone should soar on the countermelody.

About the Composer

In 1999, award winning composer and conductor David R. Holsinger joined the faculty of Lee University, Cleveland, Tennessee. He is the inaugural conductor of the Lee Wind Ensemble and teaches composition, orchestration, and conducting. He holds degrees from Central Methodist University, University of Central Missouri, and the University of Kansas.

Dr. Holsinger's compositions have won four national competitions, including a two time ABA Ostwald Award. His works have also been finalists in the NBA and Sudler composition competitions. In the summer of 1998, Holsinger was featured as the HERITAGE VI composer during the Texas Bandmasters Association convention in San Antonio. This prestigious series celebrating American wind composers was founded in 1992 and had previously honored Morton Gould, Ron Nelson, Robert Jager, W. Francis McBeth, and Roger Nixon. An elected member of the American Bandmasters Association, Holsinger's recent honors include the Distinguished Music Alumni Award from Central Missouri State University, CIDA'S 1999 Director of the Year Citation, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia's Orpheus Award, the 2003 Distinguished Alumni Award from Central Methodist College, and the 2003 Excellence in Scholarship Citation from Lee University. Surrounding the premiere of the composer's Easter Symphony, Holsinger was honored by Gustavus Adolphus College with the awarding of an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for lifetime achievement in composition and presented the Gustavus Fine Arts Medallion, the division's highest award.

In the past twelve years, Holsinger has served as Visiting Distinguished Composer in Residence at eleven American colleges or universities. In addition to his university duties, Holsinger spends much of his energies as a guest composer and conductor with All State organizations, professional bands, and university ensembles throughout the United States. When not composing or conducting, he models HO scale trains.