Robert Nathaniel Dett: The Chariot Jubilee


Robert Nathaniel Dett composed The Chariot Jubilee in 1919 after a commission came from Howard Lyman and the Syracuse University Chorus. The Chariot Jubilee is thought to be the first ever symphonic work based solely on Negro spirituals. After the premiere the orchestral score for this rich work was sadly lost, and it was not until c.80 years later when Hale Smith began to recreate the orchestral parts. Interestingly, although the premiere went well there have been seldom performances since its recreation. Part of this issue comes down to the lost orchestral parts, however. Hale Smith’s arrangement of The Chariot Jubilee brought together musicians and collaborators from across the USA to take part. Led by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the 1998 performance sparked some more performances, including one for the seventieth birthday of Martin Luther King. 


The Text

The text comes from Dett’s own pen and is based on a mix of both scripture and folklore. Dett has taken some of his most treasured lines from the Bible, African-American spirituals and folk songs to form the basis of the text sung by both the solo tenor and the chorus. At times it is difficult to know what is from Dett’s pen and what comes from the Bible. The free form of the text embraces a number of styles, which can be heard throughout The Chariot Jubilee. 


The text follows a collection of tales, passages and Biblical events:


Down from the heavens, a golden chariot swinging,

Comes God’s promise of salvation.

Amen! Amen!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home,

Swing love, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home!

God made a covenant,

For the glory of His grace

Through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

His gospel, full and free,

Like a chariot swung from heav’n,

Shall bear the true believer home,

Safely home.

Salvation, sweet cov’nant of the Lord,

I shall ride up in that chariot in that morning.

Tell it, tell it!

He who doth in Christ believe,

Though he were dead,

Yet shall he live.

King Jesus triumphed o’er the grave!

His grace alone

Can sinners save.

O Hallelujah!

The Music

Opening with poignant chords from the upper woodwind and strings, the opening flourish from the piano adds colour to the music. As the orchestral introduction gets underway we hear the first parts of the main melody of the whole piece. The bassoon leads with this to begin with, and then the horn takes over. As the introduction goes on, the texture richens to create a glorious sound across the ensemble. There is actually quite some time until any voices are heard.

The tenor soloist enters as chords from the strings are held over the bar. The melody shadows that of what was heard at the start of the piece. The melismatic and nuanced decoration of the solo sparks the sopranos to enter with an answer to the tenor. The interplay between the voices and the woodwind is pertinent and as the tenor soloist dips in and out, the texture begins to become richen.

The richly-scored lower voices initiate the ‘Sweet Chariot’ section, as the tenor soloist leads. The drones and minimal movement from the orchestra make room for the many voices to be at the centre of attention. The voices and orchestra unite on ‘chariot’ at the end of this section, creating a glorious fermata. 

The next section, now in 4/2, sees the lower voices (not the soloist) sing the lines to ‘Sweet Chariot’, whereas the upper voices sing Dett’s next original verse. No orchestral accompaniment happens here, which showcases Dett’s rich harmonies within the voices. The interweaving of the voices and the different lines is recreated in the orchestra as melodies are interlocked and the unison of sound grows. This section comes to a close as the voices end on ‘Swing Low’. Here, the tenor soloist reaches his highest note yet – a D – as they proclaim the final ‘Sweet chariot swing low’.

The next section begins, now slightly faster in tempo. Dett plays with more dissonant harmonies now, and the faster pace creates a different atmosphere. The piano in particular plays a larger part in this section, as the voices sing through the next verse. A fugue-like structure is set up by Dett as the voices begin weaving between the orchestra. This rich texture is exciting to hear and is a unifying aspect of the oratorio. 

Another a capella section is heard, as the ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ verse is heard once more. This is a poignant move by Dett and really brings the listener back into the core of the whole work. The voices enter an off-beat section which is playful and cheerful in character. The tenor soloist returns after some time with the odd line to decorate the chorus lines. There is a pattern of hearing verses and then interspersing the ‘Sweet Chariot’ verse in between. Again, this directs the listener straight back to the heart of The Chariot Jubilee. 

After an extensive climax section that sees Dett build the chorus voices up, the tenor soloist returns to sing the ‘Sweet Chariot’ verse, this time accompanied by the strings. The final pages of the work sees Dett playing with a range of different scales and harmonies, which riches the colour of the timbre. The final ‘Allegro’ section sees everything brought together and is primarily based around the word ‘Hallelujah’. As the voices unite on the final ‘hallelujah’, the tenor soloist gets the last word by reaching a top B. 


Final Thoughts

Through Dett’s use of themes, rhythms, texture changes and use of text, The Chariot Jubilee is a spellbinding free fantasia-like oratorio that is deep-rooted in Spirituals and folklore. An exuberant work that bursts with life, The Chariot Jubilee certainly deserves more stage time. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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