Musica Sacra

A New Birth of Freedom

May 11, 2013

Music celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address

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Music from the time of the Civil War and modern-day settings of the poetry of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. With special guest Jacqueline Schwab, the celebrated improvisational pianist of Ken Burns' series "The Civil War." Students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School will recite Lincoln's speeches and other texts that gave hope to so many—to soldiers who were far from home, to families left behind, and to slaves who dreamed of freedom.

Jacqueline Schwab, Pianist. Photo by Wayne Hankin.

10% of ticket sales to go to One Fund Boston

Musica Sacra has called Cambridge its home for over 50 years. While we are relieved to report that none of our members were physically affected by the incident at the Boston Marathon, we were all forever moved and changed by the event. We will donate 10% of our May concert ticket sales to One Fund Boston, the purpose of which is to raise money to help those families most affected by the tragic events that unfolded during the April 15 Boston Marathon.

"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." — Leonard Bernstein

Watercolor painting to be raffled at concert

'Darkness to Light' by Anne Palms Chalmers

Painter and Musica Sacra soprano Anne Chalmers has generously donated the gorgeous painting that we used for our upcoming concert publicity! Raffle tickets will be only $5 or 6 for $25, AND 10% of the proceeds from the painting raffle will also go to One Fund Boston. This beautiful watercolor painting is 14" wide by 10" tall. It will be framed in a simple 20" x 16" frame with white mat.

Covid-19 Protocols

Musica Sacra is requiring that all performers, volunteers, and audience members show proof of vaccination against Covid-19, or a negative PCR test within 3 days or an antigen test within 6 hours in order to attend concerts in-person. Additionally, we require that masks be worn at all times by audience members and performers. Audience members will be spaced apart in the sanctuary to allow for social distancing.

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Performance Notes

Welcome to Musica Sacra's final concert of our 2012-2013 season, in which we commemorate the 150th anniversaries of both the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the delivery of the Gettysburg Address. We are thrilled to have Jacqueline Schwab, the celebrated pianist from Ken Burns's moving documentary The Civil War, and students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School joining us.

The idea for this concert came from our fabulous accompanist Terry Halco, who suggested several years ago that we perform a concert based on music of the Civil War. You will hear two of the works that inspired him to make that suggestion tonight: Robert Evett's settings of two poems by Herman Melville. I was totally unfamiliar with Evett's work and ignorant of the fact that Melville even wrote poetry. What most impressed me about these pieces was the fact that the sentiments reflecting on “the pity of war,” articulated so eloquently by the poet Wilfred Owens regarding his experience fighting in World War I, were felt and expressed a half-century earlier by Herman Melville. Like Benjamin Britten, who used Owens' poetry in his War Requiem to honor the dead of World War II, Robert Evett and Zachary Wadsworth take the powerful poetry of Melville and Walt Whitman respectively and underscore these poets' realization that war and battle are not the glorious and noble exercises lauded by earlier writers, but the tragic expenditure of human life and an experience debilitating to body and soul. The ideals motivating war become overshadowed by the personal cost to the men sacrificed through battle to those ideals.

Rather than focusing on the music that rallied the troops or celebrated the principles of either side, we have chosen pieces that reflect the human face to and human cost of war. While that means that some of this music didn't even exist till much later, others are contemporaneous to or even predate the time and serve as a poignant reminder of the homesickness and heartbreak experienced by both the soldiers on the battlefield and their loved ones back home on Confederate and Union soil.

The exceptions to that rule are the two settings of spirituals by the 20th century composer Michael Tippett, included tonight in recognition of the role that the Emancipation Proclamation played in giving new life to the Union cause, which, prior to January, 1863, had sought only to reunite all states back into one Union. The spirituals we perform tonight acknowledge the role that slave songs, as Frederick Douglass called them, played in helping slaves disseminate information on escaping slavery. Deep River could be heard as an allusion to the Ohio River, a boundary between slave and free states across which Eliza escapes in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Achieving freedom would indeed be synonymous with crossing over into campground, an allusion to the religious meetings where slaves would find a bit of precious freedom and the ability to fraternize with other slaves, as well as a metaphor for the true freedom of Heaven.

The campground of the Great Awakening's religious revivals also figures prominently in Tenting on the old campground. It is heart-rending to hear this plaintive melody with its pleas for war to cease and its recognition of the terrible loss of and devastation to human life, especially upon learning that it was sung around campfires of both Union and Confederate soldiers. The author of its words and music, Walter Kittredge, hailed from New Hampshire; he wrote this song in 1863 on the night before he reported to duty to fight as a conscript to the Union Army.

Another song commonly sung during the Civil War era was penned by the most popular song-writer of the 19th century, Stephen Foster. His songs—such as I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair, Oh, Susanna, and Camptown Races—are a part of many of our American childhoods, even though he had written them over a century earlier. Foster published Hard times come again no more in 1854, basing its melody on one he had heard as a child in an African-American church in his hometown of Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. Its recording on wax cylinder by the Edison Company of Thomas Edison in 1905 and interpretations by modern musicians as diverse as Johnnie Cash, Bob Dylan, Yo Yo Ma, Mary J Blige, and Bruce Springsteen attest to its consistent popularity over the years. Ironically, Foster sang it during the last years of his life, dying an alcoholic destitute in New York City at the age of 37.

Shenandoah, a sea chantey of unknown origin, also predated the Civil War but, due to its theme of longing for a beloved place, became popular during the war. In this choral version by Conrad Susa, the open fifths created by the accompanying lines acknowledge the open sonorities of American shape note music dating back to the 18th century and also allude to the empty feeling created by homesickness and heart ache.

Both Melville's poem Shiloh: a Requiem written the month the battle occurred, and Shiloh's Hill, by G M.G. Smith, a member of Company C, 2nd Texas Volunteer Infantry, which is an eye-witness account, comment on the horrible loss of life incurred at the Battle of Shiloh in April, 1862. Close to 25% of all the soldiers fighting in that two day battle died, a carnage unseen up to that time but soon to be surpassed by eight other battles, among them the battles at Manassas, Antietam and, most notably, Gettysburg. I am very fortunate to have this arrangement of Shiloh's Hill composed specifically for tonight's performance by Musica Sacra alumna Rebecca Blum. In her treatment of the various verses, she captures the different elements of the poem. The solos beginning and ending the work depict the solitude of the surviving story-teller as well as his personal perspective. The second verse, with its martial rhythms, captures the call to arms leading the soldiers into battle. Each of the two verses recounting each day of battle receives different treatment at Blum's hand. The homophonic setting- in which all voices move as one-recounting the first day's battle, evokes the orderly march of the battalions, while the imitative polyphony setting the second- in which the melody is tossed among the voices- suggests the chaos of the battlefield with its hand to hand combat.. The setting of the stanza that separates these two verses, in which the narrator describes the dead on the field and the cries of the wounded, suggests the horror of the beholder as well as the still tableau of the dead and dying in the battle's aftermath, through its hushed dynamics and the alternation of the melody among each vocal part as the others accompany with wordless extended sounds known as vocalize.

While Shiloh's Hill is a personal recounting of a witness to the battle, Shiloh: a Requiem contemplates the individual toll of such a battle. Evett uses his music to bookend the piece, setting the beginning and end of the poem to the same music. In the opening verse, it seems to be a simple contemplation of nature, with the sopranos singing a melody beginning with a rising fourth to depict the flight of the swallows. In the end, when that music recurs to set again the swallows' flight, the listener understands how the natural beauty of the forest-field of Shiloh they initially skimmed over has become a landscape of death and dying. Melville's simple words receive a simple setting by Evett; the vocal movement is almost entirely homophonic and each syllable typically is set to only one note, so that the text can be clearly understood. That musical simplicity conveys the innocence of the boys who died as soldiers, the plainness of the log-built church, the stark reality that the act of dying together has turned these foes into friends, and the harsh truth: what like a bullet can undeceive. Even before the events at the Boston Marathon this song has evoked powerful emotions within me, sometimes even bringing me to tears. Evett understood consummately that the words needed very little musical exposition; musical gestures such as a dissonance on the word ‘dying' or a descending small melisma, in which a voice sings a syllable to more than one note, to depict the dying lying low, fulfill the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe 's maxim that “less is more.” In addition, Evett also makes frequent use of the sonority of the open fifth with no intermediate third between it to connote major or minor; these open intervals pay tribute to the history of American harmony in the same way that Susa does while also commenting on the innocence of the dying youth.

A description of that youthful innocence and its ability to be exploited is the main business of Melville's other poem set by Evett on tonight's program: Youth is the time when hearts are large. In his music, with its rollicking 6/8 meter implying a college drinking song, you can hear the rambunctiousness of youth. Later, when the text of the poem turns to the specificity of the Civil War, Evett creates a 20th century version of a Bach chorale, occasionally interrupted by the raucous opening theme. In creating this chorale-like texture, he mocks war's sacred cause and alludes to the suffering and death of these young men in his evocation of the chorales Bach used in his Passions to contemplate Christ's sacrifice. The interruptions act as a reminder that the solemnity of the young men's role as soldiers is both bolstered and interrupted by their youthful exuberance. With his decision to end the piece with a forte reiteration of the opening line, Evett comments on the savage cruelty of taking advantage of the energy and idealism of youth to advance a cause.

Many composers over the years, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Roger Sessions and Charles Fussell among them, have set the poetry of Walt Whitman to honor the dead and question the need for war. As a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, Whitman witnessed the cost of war on human life and wrote eloquently about it in his poetry. Zachary Wadsworth, in his Look down, fair moon, the winner of the Boston Choral Ensemble's Annual Commission Competition of 2008, makes use of two of Whitman's poems. In Wadsworth's hands, the benificent moonlight in Whitman's poem, Look down, fair moon, echoes the image of the white face in the coffin from his poem Reconciliation.

Wadsworth divides the work into five sections. In the first he creates a musically simple phrase setting Word over all, beautiful as the sky: a descent by scale through a fourth and then a rising leap of a wide interval, sometimes a sixth, sometimes a ninth. This line musically depicts that the word (Reconciliation), the sky, and the moon are over all. Wadsworth then reiterates the phrase again and again at higher intervals as first the sopranos and tenors and then the basses and altos express it in a musical manifestation of exultation. The plenteous use of triplet rhythms in the second section illustrate the balm provided by the passage of time, represented by Whitman as the sisters Death and Night. The third section contains the poet's realization that the similarities of being human make his enemy more akin to him than alien. Wadsworth emphasizes this with a slower tempo as the poet recognizes the divinity of his enemy, and a more rapid tempo with varied rhythm to illustrate the poet's conflicting emotions at confronting the abstract notion of death through the viewing of the corpse in the coffin.

During the fourth section, in which Wadsworth uses the poetry from Look down, fair moon, the singers provide a musical benediction in their consonant harmonies that is at harmonic odds with the single tone of the alto soloist. Her repeated note evokes a priest's words as he precedes the coffin down the aisle at the end of a funeral service, while the dissonance between her line and the harmonies of the singers underscores the stark difference between the beauty of the moon's light and the horror of the dead on their backs with their arms tossed wide. In the last section, Wadsworth recapitulates the musical themes of the prior sections, uniting them into one.

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to attend the exhibit of Civil War photography mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Those moving photos capture the many contradictions of that difficult time: the bravado of young men going off to war with their weapons clutched proudly and menacingly before them; the tragedy of the amputees wounded in battle; the horror of bodies bloated on the battlefield and, even worse, skeletons found after war's end. They show the mundanity of life in the camp with soldiers playing cards, laundry drying in the breeze, and cooks stirring pots over campfires. The images that resonated most strongly for me were the portraits of men staring into the camera with a gaze that seemed to see beyond it into some memory they could not shake. The curators referred to this condition by its contemporaneous name: seeing the elephant. The music we present tonight provides another way to help us try to fathom the enormity of the emotional and physical toll that that war took on this country and its citizens.

Copyright ©2013 Mary Beekman except where otherwise noted. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.