Celebrating American Heroes — May 2010

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Program Notes

Celebrating American Heroes

Read Managing Director Sharon Gustavson’s interview with collaborative artists Eric Davis and Rachel Lopez about this concert.


Our program of American music includes songs that express loss, weariness, sacrifice, and hard times, as well as the comfort, hope, and regenerative power that reside with family and community. The heroes in these works are the men and women who commit their service to a cause, the families and loved ones that support them, the teachers, healers, counselors, mentors, advocates, reformers, and others who give of their skills and time to the greater good. We dedicate this concert to all who serve—to give thanks and to celebrate their invaluable efforts.

Songs from the Civil War Era
In America, music and singing have traditionally been central to the life of the soldier at war. Songs of wartime marked our nation’s birth and its most desperate crises out of which our collective identity has emerged. It is the singing soldier who made “Yankee Doodle” our first unofficial national anthem; and, appropriately, it is images of war that animate the “Star Spangled Banner,” which we as a nation sing together more than any other song. During the Civil War, singing brought endurance during the long march, spirit to the campground, and strength to the wounded, tired, and fearful, enabling them to continue their valiant efforts on the battlefield. Songs reminded soldiers of the comforts of home, of loved ones left behind, of the valor of the fallen, of the glory of battles past, and of the honor of their present cause. Such sentiments emboldened the steps of those who needed bravery each day in order to survive, and singing lively airs set with poetic verses that spoke honestly of love and death gave succor to the hearts of even the most battle-hardened veteran during the strife and misery of wartime.

At home, choral singing was at its height of popularity during the 1860s. The nascent sheet music industry rallied behind the war effort for patriotic as well as economic reasons, providing the divided nation with a steady supply of ballads, marches, and waltzes with texts about the war and its effects on the people. Songs for voice and piano accompaniment frequently included a vocal “chorus” in a quartet setting, making them equally available to the parlor soloist as to the family and community choir. An 1864 article entitled “Our War-Songs” details the importance of singing in the home during the war.

Not only the words but the music itself strongly points to the ties by which families are bound together. Almost all the songs published are concluded by a chorus of four voices. There are few families in the country who can not and do not make up a quartet. This not only shows a satisfactory state of musical culture in the country, but also the deep-felt want of association and social enjoyment.

As the war brought hard times to families of soldiers who would otherwise be working for a living, and money was often scarce, the success of these songs and their arrangements depended largely upon their direct appeal to people’s inmost concerns. It is difficult, even in our own time of war, to understand the significance of a song like George F. Root’s “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” for people in the North in 1864, when more than 200,000 Union soldiers were being held by the Confederate Army. When General Grant terminated prisoner exchanges in 1863, most Union soldiers held in Confederate prisons languished in miserable circumstances for years until their comrades freed them. Root’s rallying cry swiftly became one of the most popular songs of the era and was sung regularly by soldiers and civilians alike well into the 20th century as a way to boost morale during wartime.

One of the most prolific composers of Civil War ballads and anthems was Stephen Foster. When the war began Foster was already established among the first rank of American song composers for over ten years. His song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” though written in 1854, would have renewed meaning in the following decade, and remains one of the finest ballads ever written in sympathy with the poor and disadvantaged. The song must have had special meaning for the composer, since toward the end of his life it was reported that Foster could remember the music of all of his songs, but the only lyric he knew by heart was “Hard Times.” Despite the vagaries of his personal and professional life (he died in 1864 at the age of 37), Foster’s songs published during the war were some of his most poignant. While we often encounter songs that focus upon the relationship between the soldier and his mother, wife, or sweetheart, “Was My Brother in the Battle?” and “Bring My Brother Back to Me” both capture the close bonds of family and the anxiety of a sibling when a soldier is at war. Perhaps his most ambitious work, “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming,” is a through-composed ode to his mother upon her death and was one of two pieces performed at Foster’s funeral.

Foster was one of no less than ten composers to set music to a poem published in the New York Evening Post entitled “We Are Coming Father Abra’am 300,000 More.” Inspired by Lincoln’s call for 300,000 additional volunteers in 1862, James Sloane Gibbons’ lyric has a driving, upbeat rhythm that none could ignore. The most successful among these was by Luther Emerson, a hymn composer who briefly studied with George Root, and whose original arrangement published by Oliver Ditson in 1863 is presented today. A little more than fifty years later this rousing call to arms would find an echo to match its patriotic fervor and intensity when George M. Cohan wrote “Over There” in 1917.

While “Father Abra’am” represents the typical case of multiple settings of a single text, the history of “The Girl I Left Behind Me” is the more traditional one of an old popular air being treated over the years to new verses. After migrating to America, the melody, which is Irish in origin and dates from at least the middle 18th century, was fashioned periodically with new lyrics to suit each new locale in which it surfaced and took root. However, the song’s theme, captured in its final line, never changed, making it a favorite among soldiers throughout the century. One historical account describes the 13th Vermont Infantry regiment, having just fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in pursuit of Robert E. Lee singing “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” According to a pictorial history of the Civil War published in 1911, which included a haunting photo of a Yankee girl at Fort Monroe peering wistfully out of a window, “the jaunty words of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ bore an undercurrent of sadness, a fear that the waiting sweetheart might by the fortunes of war be condemned to spend a lifetime in unavailing sorrow. It strikes a note of universal tenderness.”

Psalms of Joy, Sorrow and Thanksgiving
Following a devastating fire in 1999 that badly damaged the church sanctuary at First Congregational Church, Santa Barbara, I was honored with a commission to compose a choral work for its consecration ceremony. When I arrived for the first time to meet the choir, I noticed a sign prominently placed on the burned building that said “Yes! We are still here, and rejoicing!” At that moment, I knew that the music for what became Psalms of Joy, Sorrow and Thanksgiving would have to be joyous in nature, not only because it would be the mood of the congregation upon completion of the sanctuary’s restoration, but because they were celebrating the blessings of life even during that time of great hardship. And yet, I also knew that the outward reflection of communal rejoicing in the work would conceal the expression of personal anguish within. The interaction of the solo voice and the chorus represents the solace that personal suffering may find in the fellowship of community. Ultimately, the chorus emerges with great energy and positive spirit, demonstrating that hope can be restored through faith and hard work.

The ancient voices that populate the Biblical Book of Psalms offer an abundance of imagery to express a wide range of human emotional experience. The Hebrew word for what is translated as “make a joyful noise” is hari’u, the closest literal meaning of which is “applause.” This joyful noise-making had the additional connotation of being a calling out to God—a rich tapestry of meaning in a single word. The spiritual center of the work is the section that contains the blessings recanted from Psalms 103 and 104. In these Psalms, David is thanking God for the greatest blessing of all: the human soul. The blessings occur five times over the course of these two Psalms, representing both the five books of the Torah and the five stages in the development of the human soul which David detected and which the scriptures describe. Accordingly, the blessing is intoned five times by the chorus as a symbol of human need to express gratitude for the miracle of life. Finally, the joy of renewal finds its ultimate expression in a fugue. The fugal subject is set first in F-sharp major, and then D-flat major, possibly the darkest and most problematic of the major keys. A final modulation brings the chorus back to the home key of the entire work—a rather sunny F major—where the subject, now appearing in reverse, begins with the anagram of the church’s name—FCC. The conclusion returns to the beginning material, adding to its joyful strains a note of thanksgiving.

Songs From White Cities and The Visitor
Three of the songs presented here—“So White,” “Hospital Song,” and “Parade”—are from a song cycle entitled Songs from White Cities composed in 1995. The work was undertaken to celebrate the publication of a first book of poems by Ben Mazer. Although the cycle of six songs has a rhythmic pacing and internal unifying features that only reveal themselves when the entire work is performed beginning to end, the poems I chose to set were selected for their singularity, thus enabling each song to stand comfortably on its own. “So White” and “Parade” describe vistas—external and internal—that open up in the process of expanding human awareness. “Hospital Song,” originally intended for an undeveloped musical play about a soldier during World War I, is my first finished song and reveals an acknowledged debt to Kurt Weill. “The Visitor,” on the other hand, is my most recent effort at setting poetry to music. The text by Carolyn Forché depicts the scene of a Salvadoran political prisoner and his wife on the eve of his execution in language that is devastating in its stark expressiveness and simplicity.

Thanksgiving for Heroes
In April of 2009, Rachel Lopez and I premiered a dance piece entitled And Then There Were Three at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, CA. This work was directly inspired by an extraordinary event that both of us experienced earlier that year. Sadly, my step-brother, Curt Massey, a Culver City Police Officer, died in a fatal car accident on his way to work in January. His funeral organized by the Culver City and Los Angeles Police Departments was a deeply moving memorial tribute. We decided to honor the law enforcement community in turn for their service and for the remarkable manner in which they pay respect to the fallen heroes among them. We had hoped that we could find some way to develop this theme in another dance piece for a larger community venue. When the horrible events occurred that took the lives of the four Oakland Police Department officers shortly after Curt’s death, we began to talk with Corey Jamason about the importance of the arts community expressing our gratitude for those in public service, and particularly those who risk their lives every day to protect us and keep the peace. This sentiment naturally extends to all people in the Police, Sheriff, Fire, National Guard and the military. We envisioned this piece and this concert as one small way in which we all could collectively say ‘thank you’ to people who dedicate their lives to this type of public service.

Looking for suitable texts, we found an article on the front page of the New York Times from November 29, 1918 that read “All Creeds Join in Thanksgiving.” Two weeks after the Armistice at the end of World War I, civic leaders and religious figures from all over the world came together in New York City to celebrate the end of war and call for world peace on Thanksgiving Day. The article also reported that on that day Edwin Markham, author of “The Man with the Hoe,” delivered a lecture at San Francisco’s Swedenborgian Church and “read a poem ‘Thanksgiving for Heroes’ written for the occasion.” Markham was an important American poet working in the late 19th and early 20th century known primarily for his work in the social reform movement; he began his career in the San Francisco Bay Area. However, when we looked at Markham’s books of poetry, we could not find a poem with the title, “Thanksgiving for Heroes.” The title by itself had intrigued us because it evoked in the simplest terms the sentiment that we most wanted to convey: gratitude for the people that give their lives to make the world a better place. Instead we found several poems written during and shortly after the war that seemed as if they might have been the poem we were looking for, perhaps with a different title, and decided to construct a text out of them that would suit the purposes of this work.

We named our piece Thanksgiving for Heroes as a way of recovering Markham’s poetic verse at that crucial moment in world history and allowing his visionary spirit and inspirational language to lift and direct our efforts to express our own gratitude. The music and dance are therefore an elaboration of Markham’s words in the sense that they provided a constant source of rich imagery, pathos, humility, and lofty sentiment for us to reflect on and interact with. These were the qualities that we most wanted to evoke in our music and dance. While Markham’s verses were written during and just after World War I and were written to honor the heroism of soldiers in that conflict, they are used in our work to reflect the courage and virtue of men and women today in each branch of public service who have given their lives in the line of duty during 2009. It is to all these that Thanksgiving for Heroes is gratefully and humbly dedicated.

Like Psalms of Joy, Sorrow and Thanksgiving, of which it may be considered a companion piece, Thanksgiving for Heroes is traditional in style. Musical illustration and symbolism are employed throughout to convey meaning. One of the more readily apparent gestures casts the chorus and soloist once again in the representative roles of the individual and community, while others paint descriptive words (“tides,” “echoes”) with pictorial sounds.

Other structural devices that historically have meaning for composers deserve to be explained. Although the Missing Man formation is a familiar feature of contemporary funerals and services honoring fallen heroes, the symbol of one member from a formation of four peeling off from the group and leaving three to continue on has a tradition in music as well. In 1497, Josquin des Prez honored the death of Johannes Ockeghem with a déploration, or lament, in which one of the four a capella voices drops out midway through the piece to symbolize the master’s death and the loss it represented to the family of Flemish composers. Similarly, in Thanksgiving for Heroes the bass section “peels off” from the other three voices (soprano, alto, and tenor) at one point during the climax of the piece. The bass return on the words “and then called back to God again” is equally significant. Finally, the penultimate gesture in the work is a moment of silence. Once again, this common contemporary paying-of-respect has deep roots in European musical culture. Inspired to pay homage to the composer Guillaume de Machaut upon his death, Fransiscus Andrieu composed the motet “Armes amours” during which the words “la mort” and the composer’s name are followed by a moments of silence. It is in these moments when we collectively discover that silence contains much more than just the absence of sound.

—Copyright © Eric Davis, 2010

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.