Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by Steve Rouse, winner of The Rome
Prize. Hear streaming audio on this page. Suitable for advanced middle
school, all high school and college bands, and all community bands, 4 1/2
minutes duration, Grade 3.
When I was a child my grandmother often sang to me, usually hymns and
popular songs from her own childhood. I remember first hearing Swing
Low, Sweet Chariot sung to me by her. In the early 1870's my great
grandfather emigrated from Germany to the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and later
to Mississippi, where in 1887 his daughter, Sophie, was born. My grandmother
grew up listening to hymns, spirituals, and popular songs performed by
local musicians on the front porch of their home in the small town of Escatawpa,
Many songs that she heard were performed by a singing group of African-American
friends of her father. These were men who worked at the local sawmill,
which he managed. Her older brother's brass band also was a source of the
music she heard. This was a time when recorded music was uncommon, and
live performances were how most people experienced music.
She had become a natural musician, playing the piano by ear. My witness
to her abilities at harmonizing and playing music came much later in her
life, when she was between 70 and 90. While her accompaniments were frequently
similar in style (a modified stride piano), she was able to harmonize most
any melody. Because I assumed as a child that her ability was natural and
common, it came as no surprise to me that I was gifted in a similar way.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was popular in the hymnbooks of the
Southern Baptist churches of the Deep South, the religious tradition in
which I was raised. Like many other spirituals, it was still in the air
during the 1950's and 1960's of my youth. I grew up playing and singing
music in ensembles as diverse as barbershop quartets and rhythm-and-blues
groups, and I came to understand through personal experience the influence
of spirituals on American popular music at the midpoint of the 20th Century,
and well beyond.
An opportunity to compose"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" for
In May 2000, Dr. Eric Becher, former director of the University of
Louisville Concert Band, asked me to write, in his words, "a slow,
beautiful work in the grade 3 range." When my publisher suggested
that I make an arrangement of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, I realized
that this spiritual might be a perfect fit for Dr. Becher's request.
When I think of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, what I find most moving
and extraordinary is the blend of spirit and earth. By spirit I mean the
song's deep and powerful message of hope. By earth I mean the visceral
power of the music - its specific tones and rhythms that resonate within
us. Whether the song is performed very slowly or at a brisk pace, its message
is never diluted. It only shines in a different light.
Coded Songs and the Underground Railroad
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is considered to be a code song
or coded song, and is one of a handful of spirituals that refer
directly to the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was neither
a railroad nor underground, but was instead a loose and mysterious web
of people and places serving the common goal of helping those bound by
slavery to escape. Those fleeing slavery often moved northward from hiding
place to hiding place under cover of darkness and disguise.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was a favorite spiritual of Harriet
Tubman (1820 - 1913), who escaped from slavery in 1849 and is widely
considered to be the most famous leader of the Underground Railroad, the
Moses of those seeking freedom from slavery. In the 1850's she made many
rescue trips into Maryland to help about 300 slaves escape to freedom.
Most of the code words in the spirituals refer to escape from slavery;
the code words were used to hide the underlying, secret meaning of the
lyrics. Coded songs were a way for slaves to share the dream of freedom
openly with one another, drawing inspiration and hope from the texts. Without
understanding the code, the lyrics appeared to have very different, nonthreatening
meanings to the slaveholders.
The refrain and first verse of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, for
example, might have been understood in the following ways:
"CODED," SECRET MEANING
Come down from above,
Come into the slaveholding states,
the "Underground Railroad,"
Comin' for to carry me home...
Coming to take me to heaven...
Come to take me to freedom in the North or in Canada...
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
I looked over the River Jordan (in Biblical Israel), and what did
I looked over the Mississippi River (or the Ohio River), and what did I
see? ("Jordan" is the code word for the Mississippi
or Ohio rivers.)
A band of angels
A group of angels
The workers of the Underground Railroad
'comin after me...
coming to take me to heaven...
helping me to reach the North...
In another interpretation of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, the lyrics are
thought to be a coded reference to the southern Ohio town of Ripley, one
of the earliest and busiest "stations" or "depots"
of the Underground Railroad. Ripley was the home of John Parker (1827
- 1900), an abolitionist, former slave, and successful industrialist.
John Parker was also a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad.
To reach the town of Ripley, which sits atop a hill by the Ohio River,
fugitive slaves had to wait for help coming from the hill. This scene corresponds
to the lyrics that refer to a "band of angels coming across the Jordan
River to carry me home."
Goal of my arrangement
In my arrangement of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, I have tried
to capture the fervent, devotional character of the spiritual while coloring
this more religious expression with an earthiness. In my version, this
earthiness is represented by harmonies that some might consider jazz-like.
I wanted to create a rich harmonic web that mingled the simple and the
sophisticated, without straying too far from the basic impulse of the original
song. At times the piece is very simple and pure in heart, and at other
times the harmonies become luxurious, with expression that cannot be contained
or held back.
General Comments regarding the performance and interpretation
(Below are some suggestions of extramusical images that might be useful
to help the performers achieve their best. Also included are descriptions
of the musical structures, suggestions for rehearsal issues to consider,
and performance suggestions and observations, such as things to be aware
of, things to avoid, and things to focus upon.)
Try to have the players play through each and every note, using
a sustained, connected, full-valued sound. The younger and more inexperienced
the group, the greater the challenge to achieve this ideal. It takes considerable
skill and experience to play in a true sostenuto style, but this
is, after all, one of the most universal ensemble ideals.
Younger players often cheat the ends of notes. They want to rest...
literally! Try to get the players to think legato and always connected.
Only in a few measures of the piece will this sound ideal not apply, such
as the staccato parts in measures 40 - 44. Otherwise, the
more long-lined the playing, the better.
The tempo markings throughout the piece are approximate, but should
be nevertheless relative to one another. That is, a section marked mm =
54 should be slightly faster than one marked mm = 50, even if these exact
tempi are not observed. Curiously, a tempo of mm = 50 is actually
not as slow as we frequently assume. Of course, it's not zippy either.
A check with a metronome, at least in the beginning stages of rehearsals,
might be advisable. The beginning must be peacefully reverent, but a tempo
that is too slow will rob the piece of the needed energy to move ahead.
Ultimately, however, each conductor and group will find its own best pace
for the piece.
Dynamics, as always, are somewhat relative. For example, a dynamic
of piano should be the goal at the very beginning of the piece,
but don't worry too much about being really quiet here. A tentative sound
is less preferable than one that is confident and accurate, even if it
is perhaps a tiny bit too robust.
The same can be said for the other quiet parts of the piece. (I personally
prefer to avoid a sound that is insecure or hesitant.) In general, the
loudness of any dynamic marking should be gauged in the context of the
Ritardando is used throughout the score as an expressive tool.
Where the ritardando is not indicated, I prefer a steady tempo.
Detailed Performance & Rehearsal Notes
Introduction (1 - 2)
These opening measures might suggest the image of the descent of a
heavenly chariot floating down from above. Because the flutes are just
a bit high in measure 1, this image might help them to be lighter and less
Be aware, in the opening sound especially, that several different timbres
are initiated at once. Each instrument type has its own attack envelope
that causes it to have a tendency to appear earlier or later. For example,
the flutes have a softer, less focused attack than the clarinets. This
will often result in the appearance (or actuality) of the clarinets arriving
earlier than the flutes. Be aware of and listen for this. Often, simply
talking with the players about this acoustic phenomenon will help them
achieve a more precise ensemble attack.
The vibraphone, glockenspiel, and the high triangle generally will
have an instant-on attack, as compared to the winds. By discussing this
and focusing the players' attention on these differences, a more beautiful
"one instrument" effect can be achieved. Of course, this is not
easy, but it's worth the effort.
Harmonically, this opening passage uses descending parallel major triads
falling softly against the Bb pedal tone dominant of the home key of Eb.
Practicing the parallel triads without the Bb pedal tone may help the students
to hear the structures. Ultimately, however, the Bb pedal tone is the glue
that holds the harmonies together.
Intonation will improve if this Bb is in the ears of everyone. Try
asking the players to consciously focus on the pedal tone while playing
their own parts.
The ritardando in measure 2 is a rubato-like holding
back. The tempo should return immediately to the opening mm = 50 in measure
First Refrain (3 - 10)
The solo (or sectional soli) trumpet might represent the condition
of hopefulness in the face of oppression. It might also represent the voice
of a leader that is echoed by the people - represented initially by the
low brass of measures 3 - 4. If the trumpet solo part is played
as such, the soloist might wish to take some liberties with vibrato and
expression that would not be welcome as part of a section - still using
the correct rhythmic placement, of course. This part should be brought
out, especially if played by a single player. If played by the section
as a soli, the results will be better if three or more players are
on the part. If only two players perform a part, the slight, unavoidable
differences in pitch are more obvious. With three or more on a part, these
unavoidable, minute differences of pitch can actually become an asset,
creating a richness of sound unavailable to a soloist. This phenomenon
of a "fattened pitch core" is the same one that makes the string
section of the orchestra so beautiful, by the way.
Be careful to observe the rubato-like ritardando of measure
6, perhaps stretching just a tiny bit extra on beat four before returning
to the opening tempo of mm = 50. A similar ritardando occurs in
measure 10. Try to avoid the tendency to slow down prematurely in measure
9. It will also be helpful for a successful and precise arrival of measure
10 if all the instruments playing in measure 9 maintain focus and intensity
to the downbeat of measure 10. If the players are thinking of carrying
the sound through to the arrival of measure 10, the necessary connection
The phenomenon of diverse attack points will be important also in measures
3 - 4. The brass chords in this spot are performed by horn, trombone,
euphonium, and tuba. In this group, the trombone is the odd man / woman
out in the sense that it's a cylindrical bore instrument and will have
a tendency to speak more quickly than the rest of this group, which are
all conical bore instruments. Usually, an awareness by the players of these
differences will help to clear up any attack issues at this and similar
points. If nothing else, mention of this will get everyone listening carefully,
even if they're just trying to hear the phenomenon in question.
First Verse (11 - 19)
The tempo here is marked mm = 54, just a tiny bit faster than the opening,
giving a slight sense of moving ahead. Again, an exact tempo of mm = 54
is not required, but I prefer that the various tempi throughout
the piece are relative to one another and steady within themselves.
There are three principal elements in this passage that must be balanced
carefully. The melody is given to first clarinet and first alto saxophone
in unison, both of which are marked forte, which is louder than
the rest of the ensemble. Extra care must be taken to insure that the melody
does not get lost in the many moving lines and diverse parts. The half
note is the basic harmonic motion, but within this motion there are several
moving countermelodies that are marked mf, and a half-note bass-range
motion that is marked mp. Still, everything should be under
the melody. All the interior motion should create a rich bed of lush harmonies,
but this should never overpower the melody. In measures 14 - 15,
the flutes and oboes (marked at mp and p) support the melody
up an octave, and the percussion adds to this arrival, as it does in measure
Measures 18 - 19 are a bridge to the next refrain. The melody
of the verse concludes with the first note of measure 18, so the attention
should shift to the moving contrapuntal lines. Also, be aware of the ritardando,
which pulls the motion back a bit before moving ahead with a metronome
marking of mm = 54 at measure 20.
Second Refrain (20 - 28)
In these measures, strive for a peaceful, floating quality, building
only in measures 27 - 28. The flutes, oboes, clarinets, trumpets,
and glockenspiel perform a seven-part canon of the original melody, while
the trombones provide a suspension-filled chordal harmony and Eb pedal
tone. The three trumpet parts should be brought out just a bit, but not
too much. The three clarinet parts are one beat delayed from the trumpets.
The flutes double trumpets 2 and 3 up an octave, and the oboe and the glockenspiel
(an octave higher) give the last entrance of the canon.
The static harmonies and the constant sounding of fragments of the
melody give this passage something of a dreamlike character. I've deliberately
kept the dynamics rather flat, and other than the very slight emphasis
of the trumpets, the parts should be blended evenly. Melodic fragments
will appear to emerge from the texture, depending upon the focus of the
listener. This is similar to the observations of clouds drifting by in
the sky overhead: viewers see different aspects of the textures depending
upon where they focus their attention.
Measure 27 begins a two bar crescendo and gradual entrance of
the rest of the ensemble. Note that the trumpets don't participate in this
crescendo, but instead maintain the dynamic level of mp.
I wanted to give the appearance that the trumpets disappear or become immersed
in the texture. Be aware that the instruments that enter in measures 27
- 28 must count the previous rests very carefully because the floating
canonic texture doesn't give many aural signposts for orientation. Usually,
there will be a tendency to become anxious and enter too early. Since there
are too many entrances to cue them all individually, the players must count
Second Verse (29 - 35)
The build of measures 27 - 28 should lead smoothly into measure
29, where the music of the verse returns, now harmonized in quarter and
half note motion. After the more static harmonies of measures 20 - 28,
the sense of motion here will feel liberating. Allow this feeling and the
accompanying expressiveness to flower. Discussing the feeling and why it
occurs might be useful to help the players to know this moment sooner.
By knowing, I mean the precognition that happens as the music unfolds.
This pre-knowing by everyone in a group is what allows for sudden shifts
of tempo, dynamics, and such, and I believe it is also what allows a group
to sound as one instrument, to think and feel as one.
As in the first verse (measures 11 - 19), there are several
inner moving voices above the harmonic foundation of the lower instruments.
The most important of these is the melody in clarinet 1 and alto sax 1,
which is doubled an octave higher in the flutes and oboes. Clarinets 2
and 3 also initially double the melody. These doubling instruments sometimes
move independently of the melody, creating brief countermelodies and harmonizations.
This passage should be full and rich sounding, within the context of
an overall ensemble mf. Take care to balance the various dynamics
within the ensemble. For example, it would be very easy for the low brass
to completely overpower the ensemble.
The passage closes with a diminuendo and ritardando in
measures 34 - 35, reducing the ensemble to quiet, low clarinets
and first alto sax. It is in these two bars that the thread of the music
is stretched thinnest. Be sure not to stretch it too far by an excessive
ritardando - remember, even mm = 44 is not as slow as we sometimes
Modulating Bridge (36 - 39)
These four bars are the mystery moments of the piece, gradually building
the tension that will be so fully released in the final refrain that follows.
This passage might be thought of as suggesting a final, perilous uncertainty
in the movement toward freedom.
Return to the opening tempo of the piece at mm = 50. Too slow a tempo
here will result in a passage that drags and doesn't hold together harmonically.
Too slow a tempo here will also make it difficult to hear the sequential
patterns of measures 36 - 38, and it's this sequence that allows
the harmonies to hold together.
Keep the passage building throughout so that entering instruments are
absorbed gradually into the ensemble. Take care that the euphonium, timpani,
and bass drum players count carefully and enter at the right spot, as they
add the final building elements that lead to the quarter note pickup to
Final Refrain (F major) (40 - 46)
For me, this spot is what the whole piece is about and what it points
toward: a celebration and majestic exultation. If the image of the journey
to freedom is considered, this final refrain might be a kind of hallelujah
and rejoicing praise upon reaching that freedom.
This section is the most dynamically powerful of the piece, and there
are several layers of music that will need balancing. The brass will lead
the passage, being the most powerful of the ensemble, but the rest of the
ensemble is important, too. There is a lot of activity here, so it's not
practical to try to mention everything.
However, several ideas might be highlighted for a better understanding
Consider only the brass for a moment. The structural framework of this
passage is composed of the trumpet 1 melody (harmonized by trumpet 2 and
3) and the bass line in the euphonium and tuba. This framework is filled,
in part, by the harmony of the three trombones. The horns supply some melodic
doubling and countermelodies, especially the important countermelody climax
in the last half of measure 44. While there are doublings and other lines
in the rest of the ensemble, the brass can stand alone and convey the core
of the musical message. Rehearsing them separately as a section will yield
The woodwinds provide doubling support for the brass, but also add
some different and important countermelodies of their own. The alto and
tenor saxophones generally support the horn parts, and may be brought out
as needed to help with any weaknesses that might exist. In particular,
the previously-mentioned countermelody climax in measure 44, marked soaring,
should be very well supported to bring it out clearly. (This is one of
my favorite moments of the piece.)
Here's a quick listing of the roles of the other woodwinds. The lowest
instruments double the bass line. The clarinets, in part, double the trumpets
in a higher inversion, or they support the 16th note flute motion. The
oboes generally support the trumpets. The piccolo and flutes (and clarinets
at times) create high register rhythmic interest and motion. In measure
44 the piccolo is important, as it creates excitement and a high frame
above the ensemble.
Notice that there are diverse articulations throughout this passage;
be careful to observe these differences. For example, measures 41 and 42
alone contain slurs, regular accents, staccato notes, and accented
Care should be taken that the percussion support the ensemble without
overpowering it. In this passage, if the percussion distracts the listener's
attention, they are too strong. On the other hand, if they aren't strong
enough, the passage will be robbed of much of its potential visceral impact.
Measures 45 - 56 continue the ritardando begun in measure
44, and introduce a gradual diminuendo and reduction of instrumentation.
Note that the ritardando of measure 44 occurs without a reduction
of dynamic intensity, which should remain strong until measure 45 begins.
Closing (47 to the end)
If the opening two measures of the piece represent the floating, descent
of a heavenly chariot, this final section might represent a similar settling
into the quiet peacefulness of the experience of freedom, almost like sighs
of relief and gratitude.
This section is similar to the first two measures of the piece in its
materials: falling major triads against a C pedal tone. Many of the same
issues are important here, as well: ensemble attack, care with the higher
flute tones, and intonation of these shifting harmonies.
It is important that the C pedal itself be very well tuned. On a couple
of occasions, I have observed a tendency for the C pedal to be prone to
intonation challenges, especially the lower octave of middle C.
Once again, throughout this section, remember that a tempo of mm =
50 is not as slow as we frequently assume. Guard against letting a too
slow tempo make the music ponderous or heavy. The final three bars of the
piece present a staggered ritardando to the very end.
The last two bars bring a return of the solo (or soli) trumpet
and an answer by the lower brass and saxophones. The harmonies of measure
51 may present a challenge to hear. Because hearing and playing the correct
notes might require the players' attention and focus, take special care
that the chords are played legato, with a peaceful expression. On
the other hand, although the music is marked to be played quietly, I prefer
a performance with good intonation and well-supported tones to one that
neglects these aspects in favor of dynamic goals.
The final measure of the piece might represent an exhalation or Amen
in the flutes and clarinet 1, supported by the chime stroke and quiet timpani
roll. Collectively, this gesture might be considered one final breath before