More Than A Century After Its Debut, 'Lift Every Voice' Returns To Jacksonville

Feb 21, 2014

For 25 years now, the Marian Anderson String Quartet has been bringing a unique brand of African-American history and spirit to stages across the country.

This Sunday, the Texas-based group will bring some of that spirit right back to its roots.

The Marian Anderson String Quartet. From left-right: Prudence McDaniel, Diedra Lawrence, Marianne Henry, Nicole Cherry.
Credit Marian Anderson String Quartet

The quartet will be in the area to premiere a never before heard arrangement of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The new rendition of the iconic spiritual was arranged by New York-based composer Philip Wharton but has historical significance in Jacksonville.

The song was composed by native brothers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson and first premiered in the city in 1900.

The group will be performing the song as part of its “Continuing the Legacy” concert at St. Paul’s By the Sea Episcopal Church.

Deidra Lawrence is violist and co-founder of the quartet. The time and place of the concert could not be better matched, she said.

“We’re talking about the fact that this is a historical town and a historical performance of a historical piece,” she said. “And I will start by saying I think it’s fitting because this is a historical quartet.”

The Anderson String Quartet is the first black classical ensemble in history to win international recognition. In 1991, they won the International Cleveland Quart Competition.

The group is composed of Cherry, Lawrence, first violinist Marianne Henry and cellist Prudence McDaniel.

This year, the quartet began its “Continuing the Legacy” project which celebrates the contributions of its legendary namesake, said Cherry.

“What the program is in short is an opportunity for us to collaborate with great composers around the country, around the world and have them re-imagine the spiritual so that we can program them perform them as Marian Anderson did in the height of her career,” she said.

The quartet first took on the name of the legendary black contralto back in 1992 after playing for Anderson herself in her living room. Anderson granted the group permission to use her name.

Jacksonville native and Texas A&M history professor Philip Smith has been following and working with the quartet for about five years now.

“Well, I’m going to fly out to be there and I’m looking forward to this,” he said.

This is the quartet’s first performance in his native Jacksonville. He says in light of the recent racial tensions over the Michael Dunn trial, it couldn’t have come at a more fitting time.

“I think it’s a very, very timely performance because of things that have gone on in Jacksonville in the last year and the trial,” he said.

Earlier this month, a jury deadlocked in convicting Dunn, who is white, in the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis who is black.

The quartet’s co-founder Lawrence says in times of turmoil, music has always contained the power to uplift and heal.

“Our response to this tragedy is always to sing and always connected to the lyrics of the song, itself,” she said. “Lift Every Voice and Sing/So earth and heaven ring/Ring with a harmony of liberty/Let our rejoicing rise/High as the lifting skies/Let it resound/High as the rolling seas. When in doubt we gather together as community and always, always connected to the beauty of sound.”

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.