Slovenia was once the northern fringe of “South Slavia”—or, more commonly, Yugoslavia—and one of the two Balkan provinces that first broke from the socialist regime after the sledgehammers hit the Berlin Wall. Last month, almost exactly ten years since that declaration of independence, the Gordon College choir arrived in Maribor, Slovenia's second largest city. The three-hour bus drive from Ljubljana, the prosperous capital, took us from the foothills of the Dinaric Alps through sloping wine fields and tiered farmlands. Maribor rests on the Drava River, one of Europe’s longest, a medieval trade artery for timber, fish and wine. Over the past five hundred years the city, like virtually every Balkan town, has been entangled with so many principalities that its riverfront center is an architectural mélange. St. John's Cathedral retains a few walls from the late fourteenth century, yet the Roman Catholic church is now distinguished by later amendments—the Germanic bell tower with its copper dome, the Italian roof tiles, the chandeliers from eighteenth-century guilds, and the pastel walls reminiscent of the painted churches along the Adriatic. Refugees from former Yugoslavian provinces, especially Croatia and Bosnia, often find shelter in Maribor, and musicians from Vienna and Salzburg regularly tour here, a legacy of its days under Austrian control. And last month Gordon's choir became the first American musicians ever to perform inside the cathedral.
All performers in St. John’s now step into the shadow of John Paul II, who led mass at the altar less than two years ago. Photos of the pontiff during that service fill the entryway. Normally the Pope announces new saints from the palace at the Vatican, but in the fall of 1999 he came to Maribor for the beatification of Anton Martin Slomesk, a local nineteenth-century bishop known for his advocacy of music and education. Although more than half of the Slovenians are still officially Catholic, the Pope’s unusual trip to Slovenia for the mass most likely betrays some uneasiness about the Church’s hold on the northern Balkans. With socialism on the run, the greatest threat to the Roman faith in the region is neither Protestantism nor Islam, but disbelief, increasingly fueled by the youthful anger over interfaith bloodshed in the Slavic regions. “I am an angel without faith,” writes Dane Zajc, Slovenia’s most acclaimed poet, as he envisions several “holy women” in his fierce lyric “Gothic Windows.” “Throw off your veil, Magdalena./ Tomorrow you will stand in the drizzling/light of the sun/naked. Humiliated.” Bombs from World War II shattered St. John’s original gothic windows, to be replaced by some bright modern designs, but the traditional liturgies have had more difficulty reinventing themselves. With thinner crowds at mass, a choral music concert survives as one of the more vibrant ways to fill the vast corridors of medieval stone, and Maribor often promotes St. John’s as a performance space. Choir benches, dating from 1771, still line the long chancel, complete with carved images of the cathedral’s namesake—John the Baptist—as he pours water over the penitents in the Jordan River.
Our concert ended—as virtually all of them before—with the autumnal tones of the old spiritual “Deep River,” accented by Wendy Walden’s mournful solo. “My home is over Jordan,” the choir sang, striving to capture the somber longing that left slaves staring over the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers or resigning themselves to a heavenly passage. By the time we reached Maribor the choir had sung the refrain in Dutch hotels, German villages and Swiss chapels, all part of a two-thousand-mile bus journey through Western Europe. Arlyne and I shared the ride with Tom Brooks, the director, his wife and colleague Susan, a few faculty friends, and fifty-one choir members, some of them just days beyond their graduation. The long trek began in Amsterdam, followed the Rhine to Cologne, and eventually wound through the northern Alps before traversing the Salzach and Sava Rivers, as well as this mountainous region that, not all that long ago, was a border in the Cold War.
The audience at Maribor—many of them old enough to remember the Communists and the Third Reich—was clearly aware of the historic nature of an American presence in their sanctuary. Since the crumbling of Yugoslavia, U.S.-Slovenian relations have been cordial, though slightly strained by Slovenia’s failure to win entry into NATO, sometimes blamed on the nation’s reticence to compensate citizens for the land seized by the former socialist government. Slovenia, though, has recently earned international acclaim for its measures against contemporary slavery. Like many European nations with generous asylum policies, the young republic recognizes that it can unwittingly become a “transit country” in the modern trade, and this year it forged a “working group” to unify anti-trafficking efforts by government ministries and NGOs, some with ties to Slovenian-American communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Minnesota. After the concert, the priest, with his sparse English, marked the historic occasion and celebrated American-Slovenian good will with a bottle of wine and plastic cups, lingering with the choir until darkness on the steps of the cathedral portal. In the churchyard dusk, students set their drinks beside the statue of Slomsek and dodged the evening moths. That night, a young Slovenian professor, moved by the music, lamented that we were not staying longer.
"There is much more of our city to see," she pleaded, eager for a chance to talk more about the purpose of "univerzitetni zbor Gordon," as it was described in the Slovene language program.
I was sorry that we could not remain longer for such conversations, for this was a trip, in so many ways, that had been about the intersections that comprise a moment of music. One purpose of the tour, as Tom and Susan underscored, was for students to hear the classical compositions in the old cathedrals, with the acoustical challenges that must have inspired and tested their composers. Each night the repertoire began with some notable European compositions, such as the "Buccinate" of Italian Giovanni Croce, the "Gloria" of Frenchman Guillaume Dufay, and the "Ecce Virgo" by the Dutch composer Jan Sweelinck. Shortly after arrival at each site, the choir went into rehearsal, not only to shake off the lethargy of a long drive but also to test the reverberations of the corridors and ceilings of the village church or cathedral, catching as it were some resonance from the Renaissance or the Middle Ages.
On most dates, though, the emotional momentum of the concerts came from the American pieces, usually saved for the final half of the evening. When the occasion allowed some sportiveness, Tom threw in a diversion or two, a tune from Richard Rogers or Foster's "Some Folks" and "Nelly Bly." ("You have the great nineteenth-century composers Beethoven, Schumann and Wagner," he once quipped at a German church, “and we have Stephen Foster.") But the climactic pieces were more plaintive, even disorienting. Over the two weeks the choir had become increasingly adept at interpreting Jewish-American composer Aaron Copland's "In the Beginning," a complex setting of the words of Genesis 1, with rich solo parts for mezzo soprano Sarah Herman Heltzel. Allen Koepke's seemingly conventional "Praise the Name of God with a Song" would, all of a sudden, shift into deliberate and unstructured dissonance, from which the choir had to emerge with a concluding note of harmony. Robert Christensen's wrenching "David's Lament" left no consolations for the king's grief over Absalom's death. Most of all, though, the audiences relished the spirituals: "Witness," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and those haunting refrains of "Deep River."
Each night, I was grateful for the weight of these moments. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, some Americans were quick to see the post-Communist regions of Europe as ripe for the marketing of American Christianity. Even American choir tours, to some European eyes, could be seen as another wave of tourism rather than a quest for spiritual understanding. So there seemed to be dignity in listening to an American music that carried its Christian hope with edges of human sorrow. To hear "Deep River," with its longing for liberty, was to hear again of a faith born not of opportunism but of pain and perseverance. But even though we might imagine that pain, it could never be our own. For all the melancholy lure of “Deep River,” I did keep asking myself whether a college choir, predominantly white, could truly carry an old slave lyric as its emotional capstone. Yet it was a song that sounded strangely familiar in the naves of Europe’s cathedrals. By now, “Deep River” is so layered with European choral motifs that it is easy to get caught up in its doleful harmonies without realizing anything of the bitter craving that gave it birth.
No one knows who wrote “Deep River.” It began, possibly, as a chant among American slaves, or perhaps one of the so-called “sorrow songs” among fields hands on the cotton and tobacco plantations or a work song among stevedores at river wharves and steamboats. It does not appear in Slave Songs of the United States, the landmark 1867 anthology of “sperichils,” drawn primarily from the Port Royal Islands off South Carolina and the bayou counties of the Gulf region. Yet it was part of the repertoire of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the eleven-member choir formed in 1871 to raise funds for Fisk University, a struggling young Nashville institution formed to educate freed slaves in the border states. In the immediate aftermath of Lee’s submission at Appomattox, anthologists were eager to capture the slave lyrics and harmonies before they were lost, engulfed by “sentimental” or “spurious imitations,” or molded to fit the traditional European melodies. Retooled slave songs—sometimes stripped of their “shouting”—were indeed often adapted to fit the style of church anthems, causing some of the old slave tunes to be described as “Dr. Watts,” a deferential but still satiric nod to the legacy of Isaac Watts, the famed British hymnologist. By the time it was published in the appendix to an 1892 history of the Jubilee Singers, “Deep River” undoubtedly bore a few musical designs that imitated European masters.
The man who did the most to stretch “Deep River” to both sides of the Atlantic was Harry Thacker Burleigh, one of the first black composers to introduce Europe’s classically trained artists to the spiritual. Born one year after Lincoln’s assassination, Burleigh heard his grandfather, a partially blind ex-slave, sing plantation songs while the older man worked as a lamplighter in Erie, Pennsylvania. In 1892, Burleigh won admission to the New York Conservatory, where he soon became acquainted with the new director, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorák, who spent long hours listening to Burleigh sing American spirituals. Dvorák’s “New World Symphony,” written in 1893, reworked themes from those spirituals, most compellingly a flute solo evoking “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The “so-called plantation melodies and slave songs,” Dvorák wrote, “are distinguished by unusual and subtle harmonies, the like of which I have found in no other songs but those of old Scotland and Ireland.” Burleigh realized that “in Negro spirituals my race has pure gold . . . In them we show a spiritual security as old as the ages.” Appointed the baritone soloist at the affluent Saint George’s Episcopal Church in New York, Burleigh devoted many years to arranging African-American music for popular audiences by setting them in more classical forms, including “Deep River,” published in 1932. Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and other notable black soloists would make that rendition part of the American songbook, and it was often reworked for musicals and vaudeville. Burleigh’s adaptation influenced many successors, including the version sung by the Gordon choir, a setting by the Minnesota Lutheran René Clausen, with its classical chord progressions and a trace of rubato timing, or the slight variations in speed also common in Chopin, American jazz, and the folk songs of the Slavic people.
Even with its classical airs, though, the “Deep River” that we heard in Maribor still reveals traces of the antebellum spirituals. The song always seizes audiences with its melismatic opening—several notes sung on the one syllable of “Deep”—familiar to the slave anthems that mixed aspiration and lament. The simple words are loaded with allegorical import: the cry that one’s “home is over Jordan” looms as a promise of both freedom and death, the slaves never certain whether their final release will be a legal or a heavenly one. The song’s most inspiring moment comes early, with the full octave leap between “is” and “over,” but that sudden rise can equally convey the fearful breadth of the river, the wide expanse between captivity on the plantation where the slave “is” and the freedom “over” the waters where they would be—as well as the long distance between the labor of the field and the arms of God. That octave jump was not uncommon among the antebellum “basers”—those campground or praise singers who responded to a lead musician’s opening lines by taking the melody in striking new directions, an improvisation capable of expressing hope or remorse.
There might be some coded language in the lyrics, clues about secret meetings often masked behind biblical allusions. Some historians claim that “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was not simply an appeal for heaven to bring the weary worker home, but occasionally a cipher informing slaves how to “look over Jordan” to see the “band of angels” waiting at a specific outpost of the Underground Railroad. I suppose we will never know what hints might now and then have been woven into the short refrain of “Deep River.” When a soloist pleads to “cross over into campground,” she might have had something more in mind than a heavenly rest or a backwoods prayer meeting.
A couple hours before the concert, we walked down to the Stari most, or the “old bridge,” with its iron arches spanning the Drava. The late May afternoon was cloudless: bright images from the red-tiled shops along the embankment and the thick willows stretched over the sheer waters. The river was once Maribor’s shield: its swift current and cavernous depths impeded Turkish invaders. The former wooden bridge, continually repaired, had lasted from the thirteenth century until 1913, but the most famous passages over the brisk stream still came by ferries and rafts. With its rapid flow, the Drava hustled commerce between cities, especially on those rafts, either the small “sajke” or the larger “italijancki,” both carriers of cargo barrels and summer vintage. In June the Festival Lent—named not for the pre-Easter penance but for the Lent Harbor, site of one of the world’s oldest grapevines—brings out replicas of the historic rafts, as well as a few windsurfers.
But today the waters are no longer swift or deep. In the Communist era hydroelectric plants tamed the once-swift flow and lowered the water line, siphoning off much of the stream into rural and urban canals. Ecologists are now cleaning dams and clearing the waters, attempting to restore some of the Drava’s old verve, but the modern city now needs more energy from the river than trade or drama. The now-placid river has surrendered its depths for human comfort.
For all of its sorrowful tones, “Deep River” has become more comfort than lament. During the tour, it was often the tranquil postlude after the piercing heartache of “David’s Lament.” American spirituals are now part of our national canon, a staple repertoire for a liberal arts choir or conservatory, far removed from the sorrows of the cotton fields or slave prayers. Something of the depth of those sorrows and prayers was more likely heard when Burleigh or Robeson sang in the early twentieth century, well before recent advances in civil rights, than when most collegiate choirs perform “Deep River” today. We carry the song forward, well aware that as we do we lose something of its rich origins in our new choral adaptations. But music and art do continually change, filling new cathedrals and concert halls as well as our own inner landscapes. Art almost always thrives on anachronisms. In the cathedral by the Drava, a copy of Rubens’ “Descent from the Cross” sets Golgotha against the low marshlands of Catholic Flanders, while folk carvings show John baptizing in the Jordan beneath the Slovenian hills. As the choir mourned “O Absalom, Absalom, my son,” I thought of my own boys, back home in Massachusetts, wondering if the painful refrain could ever console me should I lose them. But I could only imagine how the song might have been heard in the cathedral, or the neighboring synagogue, where the loss of sons and brothers from the last century’s wars may still be an open wound. And I could only imagine how the old slave lyric about crossing the Jordan River, reframed with European choral designs, moved a Slavic audience with its own recent memories of Communist control. Listening to our choir in Maribor reminded me that music is often much more than emotion or virtuosity, but also a journey through the varieties—and the interdependence—of religious experience.
Dane Zajc, “Gothic Windows.” Translated by Sonja Kravania. In Scorpions (Ljubljana: Slovene Writers Association, 2005).
William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison, eds., Introduction to Slave Songs of the United States (New York: A. Simpson and Co., 1867), i –ii.
Antonin Dvorák, "Music in America," Harper's 90 (1895): 432.
Harry Thacker Burleigh, quoted in Grace Overmyer, Famous American Composers (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, Co., 1945), 135.