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Castle of Our Skins explores the beauty and power of African American spirituals

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Castle of Our Skins explores the beauty and power of African American spirituals
Castle of Our Skins performs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum PHOTO: COURTESY OF ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

Once a month, a different gallery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which has witnessed so much silence during the COVID-19 shutdowns, comes alive with spiritual melodies played by the Castle of Our Skins string quartet. “Witness: Spirituals and the Classical Music Tradition,” a collaboration between Castle of Our Skins and the museum, explores the beauty and power of African American spirituals through a classical lens.

Each of the four short videos, running about 10-15 minutes each, delves into a different spiritual: “Deep River,” “Swing Low,” “Wade in the Water” and “Cavalry.” The stunning videography, shot by Bearwalk, pairs Castle of Our Skins’ exceptional classical performances with stirring visuals of the quiet Gardner Museum.

Ashleigh Gordon, violist, Artistic & Executive Director, Castle of Our Skins

Ashleigh Gordon, violist, Artistic & Executive Director, Castle of Our Skins PHOTO: COURTESY OF ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

“In addition to highlighting these different spirituals, [we’re] more broadly trying to provide context around spirituals, their history, the artists who championed them, etc.,” said Ashleigh Gordon, executive and artistic director of Castle of Our Skins, during a Q&A program with the Gardner. This context comes out in interviews with the musicians and with artists and educators from around Boston, as well as in an online resource list for further inquiry.

“I want you to hear the sounds, the moans, the groans, the cries, the wails, the emotive nature of individuals who were singing towards their freedom, singing towards their liberation, trying to be heard in a way and a shape where they didn’t have political power,” says scholar and educator Reverend Emmett G. Price III in the “Swing Low” film. “The one thing we had was the agency of our voice, and that’s what you’re listening to.”

Reverend Emmett G. Price III

Reverend Emmett G. Price III PHOTO: COURTESY OF ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM

Gordon worked with George Steel, the Gardner Museum’s Abrams curator of music, to put together the musical programs, delving into different translations of the spirituals into a classical format. The pieces they chose are well suited for a string quartet but are also highly recognizable, illustrating the pervasive nature of spirituals in American music. The beautiful cinematography further provides viewers the opportunity to see the Gardner Museum empty of people but filled with music, a context rarely available to Bostonians in person.

The “Swing Low” and “Deep River” performances are available for free on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website. “Wade in the Water” premieres May 21, and “Calvary” premieres June 18.

The “Witness” series allows audience members to enjoy these important works while also ruminating on their origins and the credit that is owed to Black Americans for them. Gordon says, “Celebration is very much at the forefront, pride is at the forefront, as it relates to Black expression.”

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