ed. John Michael Cooper

  • Piano
  • 1 min

Programme Note

Like many other slave songs, "Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho" employs a strategy of dual perspective. During the antebellum era, when the song is believed to have been written, enslaved Blacks' masters would have understood the song as the slaves' musical celebration of a heroic event in the Judeo-Christian religion that been had forced on them: Joshua's and the Israelites' victory over the Canaanites in Jericho (Joshua 6: 1-27). For the slaves themselves, however, the tune's text had at least two additional layers of meaning. On the one hand, the Israelites' victory over the Canaanites certainly allegorized a victory of the powerless and oppressed over the mighty and dominant — a message that must have resonated with the slaves and their descendants who continued to suffer (and still do suffer) under the United States' pervasive systemic racism. Moreover, the triumph of God's chosen people over the Canaanites' fortress of Jericho in the Bible was divinely mandated — a potent symbolic suggestion that there was likewise a divine imperative that the fortress of slavery would ultimately collapse because God was on the side of the oppressed, not the dominant. The persistence of virulent oppression of Blacks and the seemingly unshakable fortress of anti-Black racism in Price's world (as in our own) must have made this Biblical assurance that God's justice would ultimately prevail an especially welcome message to celebrate in song.

Price did celebrate it. Although her use of this same spiritual in the Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for string quartet is reasonably well known today, the present setting for piano solo is also vivid in its energetic, battle-like tone. The piece's stylistic progression might also reflect the intensification and climax of the Biblical tale: according to the Book of Joshua, God directed that the Israelites march in silence around the walls of the city once per day each day for six days, then march seven times around the walls on the seventh day, after which they were to blow their horns (or trumpets) and shout — whereupon the walls of the city collapsed: "So the people shouted when the priests blew the trumpets. And it happened when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat. Then the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city" (Joshua 6: 20-21 [New International Version]). Price musically mirrors this intensification by setting the spiritual in modal two-part counterpoint in mm. 1-8, introducing chromaticism in mm. 9-16, adding a third voice while continuing the chromatic harmony in mm. 17-24, increasing the rhythmic independence of the two main voices in mm. 25-32, and introducing a fourth voice and a syncopation in the accompaniment in mm. 33-40. All voices join together in climactic chordal style in the last two bars, and the final note — a grace-note with repeated octave Ds in m. 41 — is a clear musical imitation of the call of trumpets and horns in octaves.

— John Michael Cooper