Curtis Stewart's Written Arrangement of "Lift every Voice and Sing"
The arrangement of the known Black national anthem is included in The Royal Conservatory of Music Violin Series, Technique, Etudes, and Musicianship Level 5-8 book
The Violin Channel recently discussed the newly written arrangement with Curtis Stewart. You can read more about the new Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) Violin Series, 2021 Edition, here.
You recently composed an original work based on a quite famous piece for the new RCM violin course. Can you tell us about the origin of this work?
This was one of the first pieces I composed for solo violin — the conceptualization process began away from the instrument and score — with a paraphrase of the lyrics of the three-stanza spiritual, "Lift every Voice and Sing."
I pulled lines that rang out to me. Based on those words, I began to piece together the meaning of what I was intuitively tapping into with the original spiritual material. It felt like uncovering what was already there. I knew I wanted to focus on the use of the voice, questioning what brings a human to let their voice ring out. I began imagining the ghosts of voices, scraps of the poetry swirling around the violin lines, and calling and responding with the melody.
The piece ended up evolving from something very slow/mysterious to something rhapsodic/passionate, then determined/rhythmic, and back to the ringing of harmonics with actual spoken word. In writing, I realized I was aiming to capture a life cycle of the activation of the voice to action.
What was your idea or inspiration behind this project and what were you hoping to deliver?
With this piece, I wanted to create a violin "showpiece" that also doubled as a call to voice, bringing this source material into the violin rep for myself and other violinists. I also tried to imagine the intent of violinist composers from the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s — the delicate straddling of cultures that they may have felt they were dancing between, exploring their own way with the violin while tapping into their individual heritage along with the accepted traditions of violin playing in European art music.
I wanted this music to speak for me, my playing, and my beliefs, and I wanted to give other players of varying levels the opportunity to tap into this material in their own way.
How did this opportunity come to you?
I played a digital recital for the Music at Port Milford summer music program in August 2020, which came after Meg Hill, the program's director, saw some of the video work I was doing that summer. We had a relationship from going to graduate school in music education, and my string quartet PUBLIQuartet was in residence at the camp in 2019. RCM saw that recital, reached out to Meg, and she referred me! THANK YOU, Meg Hill, ha! MPM is the best!
RCM reached out and commissioned me to write several pieces for varying levels of violin students, and I adapted this piece for one of the advanced level commissions.
I never really thought of myself as a composer before this moment, but this opportunity forced me to write down my improvisations, and combine those impulses with the impromptu musical exercises I would spontaneously compose for my own students in technique classes. Writing, crystalizing, articulating, and most of all, EDITING, are totally different muscles from my day-to-day music-making/teaching, and I am grateful to be able to stretch them more these days!
This piece appears in the Technique, Etudes, and Musicianship 5-8 book, for advanced players. What techniques do the students need to successfully perform this work?
At this stage, students should be able to play beyond 8th position, natural harmonics with quadruple stops, some double stops (3rds, 4ths, and 6ths), and light bariolage. That all sounds like a lot, ha! But the vocal quality and mysterious start of the work, musically, allows for a lot of time to let the hand and bow set.
The piece is designed to feel like a technical exploration of varying degrees of difficulty, challenging the constant flexibility of the hand. The rhythmic nature, musically, does not imply a demand for strict and structured execution but it does promote constant lyricism and singing even in new technical territories.
The techniques are truly there to create a mood and character, not to torture the hand. I would like to think this could be a first foray into the feeling of technical demand in Wieniawski, Ysaye, and Vieuxtemps type character pieces — perhaps a transition to the next advanced level of violin playing, but not necessarily preparation for solo Paganini.
What do you hope violinists who learn the piece will take away with them and what would be your advice for them to give their best performance possible?
I hope violinists who learn this piece take every opportunity to play what is written, and what is NOT written — to listen to the original spiritual, which is also known as the Black National Anthem — to listen to other spirituals, the blues, which embody the energy of a whole culture of American music and people — to add and subtract from the arrangement and make it their own.
I hope players begin to feel free to emulate, ingest, and embody the voices of many cultures, their musicality, and attitude within the bounds of this composition and beyond. I hope this is a door for other violinists and teachers to realize they are allowed to compose music that means something to them, and they can do it with style and technical rigor.
A violin etude is a study, a study of the hand and bow, execution, and new techniques — but it can also be a study in style, musicality, cultural equity, and artistic expansiveness. Go for it!