Academic journal article The Hymn

Charles Faulkner Bryan's White Spiritual Symphony

Academic journal article The Hymn

Charles Faulkner Bryan's White Spiritual Symphony

Article excerpt

When George Pullen Jackson introduced the term "white spiritual" in 1933 in White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands,2 he was seeking to describe the nature and origins of a body of traditional American religious song. While Jackson was seeking to codify and preserve the melodies and texts, some composers of the twentieth century drew on the same material as a source for bringing a uniquely American music into the concert hall. One such composer was Charles Faulkner Bryan. Bryan expressed his views on using folksong in composition in his application for a Guggenheim fellowship.

It is my sincere belief that concertized folk music, in order to strike the responsive note in performer as well as the listener, can best be developed by a person who has been a part of the music and who understands its force and its subtleties. At the same time, this individual must be able to present his material in a contemporary vein which adds interest to the older melodies without destroying the original spirit of [the] folk theme.

Two things set Bryant apart from other composers of the time period. Not only did he specifically use sacred song (spirituals), he also incorporated the specific cultural context of the tunes into his larger works. He specifically used tunes and cultural practices from his home in southern Appalachia, seeking an authenticity of tune, technique, and historical setting. He had an intimate knowledge of the theological content of hymnody from his work as a church musician and worship leader in Tennessee.

The Life of Charles Faulkner Bryan

Charles Faulkner Bryan (1911-1955) was a native of McMinnville, Tennessee, where he was a member of First Baptist Church of McMinnville and a leader in his school and community. After graduating from the Nashville Conservatory of Music in 1933, Bryan became the head of the music division at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in Cookeville (now Tennessee Technological University).3

The Tennessee Folklore Society was organized during Bryan's tenure at Tennessee Polytechnic, leading Bryan to an association with George Pullen Jackson (1874-1953) and Lucien L. McDowell (1885-1943). Both men would have an impact on Bryan's compositional style, encouraging him to see the white spiritual as suitable thematic material for composition. Bryan's association with Jackson led to his membership in Jackson's Old Harp Singers and their joint publication of American Folk Music for High School and Other Choral Groups.4 Lucien and Flora McDowell were also members of the Tennessee Folklore Society and collected folksongs in the Highland Rim area of Tennessee. The McDowells collaborated to publish three collections of folksong and folklore, including Songs of the Old Campground: Genuine Religious Folk Songs of the Tennessee Hill Country,5 a collection of camp-meeting songs gathered in one area near Walling, Tennessee, where nineteenth-century camp meetings had been held. These melodies would influence Bryan's creation of White Spiritual Symphony.

White Spiritual Symphony

White Spiritual Symphony was Bryan's thesis for a V V master of music education degree completed in 1940 at George Peabody College for Teachers. Bryan stated his purposes for the work in the abstract of the submitted copy of the thesis: "The purpose of this thesis is to show that the white spiritual offers suitable thematic material for the composition of the highest orchestral form, the symphony, and to call attention of the music public to this newly discovered folk music."6 In the introduction to his thesis, Bryan identified five specific tunes which were incorporated into his work, as well as his sources for those tunes:

This symphony consists of three movements. The first, Allegro ma non troppo, is based on two folk hymns, "Promised Land" and "Come Ye Sinners" (Restoration). The second movement has as the principal theme "Goin' Over Jordan," while the last division of the work is based on "I Believe in Being Ready. …

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