Pax Americana

This week, for some reason, I started thinking about early American music. Being a born and bred Bostonian, I have long explored the music of the New England colonial period – remind me to tell you sometime about seeing the re-enactment of the Battles of Lexington and Concord for the Bicentennial in 1975, all preceded by a 4am pancake breakfast at the First Parish Church in Sudbury…mmmm pancakes!

 Simple Gifts, by William Billings, perhaps the most famous of the First New England School of composers during the colonial period.
Pax Americana

We start with the most famous of the First New England School of composers during the colonial period, William Billings – he was largely self-taught, but became influential as a “Singing Master” (i.e., a singing teacher). Billings died in poverty at age 53 (in 1800), and for a considerable time after his death, his music was almost completely neglected in the American musical mainstream. However, his compositions remained popular for a time in the rural areas of New England, which resisted the newer trends in sacred music. Moreover, a few of Billings’ songs were carried southward and westward through America, as a result of their appearance in shape note hymnals. They ultimately resided in the rural South, as part of the Sacred Harp singing tradition.

For some context, I chose a piece by his younger contemporary Supply Belcher (love that name) who was active first in Lexington, MA then eventually moved to Farmington, ME. Like most of his colleagues, Belcher could not make music his main occupation, and worked as tax assessor, schoolmaster, town clerk, and so on; nevertheless he was considerably well known for his musical activities, and was even dubbed ‘the Handell


of Maine’ by a local newspaper. Most of his works survive in The Harmony of Maine, a collection Belcher published himself in Boston in 1794.

We return to the music of Billings – in an interesting juxtaposition. I’m actually focusing here on William Schuman’s New England Triptych  which is based on three works of Billings.  I precede each movement of Schuman’s great orchestral set with the Billings works on which they are based. You might remember that William Schuman was a major force in music in New York City – not only as a major composer, but, significantly as the influential first president of Lincoln Center and as head of the Juilliard School.

After that, we head into the early 19th Century with two well known shape note hymns ‘Holy Manna’ and ‘Angel Band’, presented first by Anonymous 4 in versions true to the shape note originals and then two contemporary responses: William Duckworth’s clever post-minimalist adaptation of ‘Holy Manna’ and Shawn Kirchner’s gorgeous response to ‘Angel Band’.

We follow that with some of the other hymn tune traditions of the 19th century, notably the Shakers – in arrangements by Kevin Siegfried, Dale Warland, Virgil Thomson, the ever amazing Alice Parker and my good friend Jennifer Higdon. Higdon’s arrangement of ‘Amazing Grace’ has a special meaning to me. It was part of a large-scale seven movement work that I commissioned from Jennifer in 1998 for The Philadelphia Singers called Southern Grace. Jennifer had written a couple of smaller works for us, but I wanted a cycle that could be both a larger work, but also excerpted out. Since Jennifer is from East Tennessee, I wanted her to create arrangements of tunes from her Appalachian heritage – she went geographically a bit further though!
‘Amazing Grace’ is the closing movement of the cycle and is here presented in a version Jennifer created for string quartet. It’s a work I feel very close to – so much so that I included it on my final concert as music director of The Philadelphia Singers in 2015.

I decided to include two movement of Virgil Thomson’s – Symphony on a Hymn Tune to whet your appetite to explore more of Virgil’s music – he was such an influential presence in New York’s musical scene, both as composer and music critic – not to mention (famously) holding court at his lodgings at the Chelsea Hotel! 

I decided to take a step back and include the 2nd movement of Dvorak’s – Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World’. While the English Horn solo was later ‘reverse-engineered’ into a spiritual, it reflects Dvorak’s opinion that true American music would come from Native American and African American music traditions. The folk song influence in Europe was to be found in these musical roots in America and Dvorak encouraged the development of such African American composers as H. T. Burleigh and William Dawson. It’s important to remember that Dvorak lived in New York from 1892-1895, teaching at the National Conservatory of Music which was located on the E 17th Street just off Union Square!

I follow that with the great Paul Robeson singing an arrangement of the second movement of Dvorak 9, which became the spiritual “Going Home”. This performance was from a live recital at Carnegie Hall. Next up is a rare 1909 recording of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, one of the most famous of the ‘Jubilee’ ensembles, preserving the music of African American slaves. Roland Hayes, the great baritone, sings “Go Down, Moses” in an arrangement by H. T. Burleigh from a 1922 recording. I round out this section with H. T. Burleigh’s arrangement of ‘My Lord, What a Mornin’’ sung by the Moses Hogan Singers.

All of which leads us to the first major outgrowth of Dvorak’s vision for American music. The Afro-American Symphony of William Grant Still. Still was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930’s and was the first African American composer performed by a major symphony orchestra and the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra. He’s an enormously important composer, often called the “Dean of African American Composers” – an echo of the appellation attached to Aaron Copland who was referred to as the “Dean of American Composers”. The YouTube video has a very good introduction in the info section to Wm. Grant Still – I urge you to read it!

Maybe it was the Shaker tune, maybe it was the fact that the pandemic kept me from being able to perform Appalachian Spring with the Martha Graham Dance Company last month – but, I couldn’t resist concluding with music of Aaron Copland. First up is his suite from ‘Our Town’ – a work that makes me think of quiet summer nights in small town America…or perhaps just my ideal of that. Next is the Suite from Appalachian Spring in its original version for 13 instruments – which, to me is the best orchestration. Pace, lovers of the full orchestra version!

The conclusion of this week’s playlist is a version of the finale to Copland’s orchestral suite from the opera The Tender Land – ‘The Promise of Living’-  which combines the original orchestral version with the choral version. It says it’s arranged by John Williams – but, all he did was layer on the choral version – something btw, which I did in 2007 for a performance with The Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center, before I’d ever heard of anyone doing that…great minds, ha!  Actually, that TWC performance (of which I have many fond memories!) of music by Barber – Prayers of Kierkegaard, Copland – Old American Songs and the suite from The Tender Land Is a program I’d like to reprise sometime…hmmmm.

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