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A New England Symphony

composer

 
When David Hill and Martin Jean commissioned me to write a substantial sacred work for Yale Schola Cantorum, I was keen to find texts with some geographical and historical relevance both to this Connecticut student choir and to me as an English composer. I was therefore pleased to discover poems by writers who belong to New England and yet have transatlantic history too; Anne Bradstreet was born in Northampton and emigrated with the early Puritans to Massachusetts in her late twenties. Phillis Wheatley was seven when she was taken from North Africa to serve as a slave, and James Pennington was born into a slave family in Maryland. Education saved them both from a life of slavery, and Pennington became the first black man to be admitted to Yale. The Quaker abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier was born and died in Massachusetts; for us English, he is most fondly remembered for his words to the ever-popular hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’.

Having found my texts, I began to think about form, as a twenty-minute unaccompanied piece is quite a challenge to sustain. I was aware that I would need to vary the texture considerably, also allowing me to showcase the vocal talent and musicianship within the choir, and I began to fantasize about some sort of symphonic structure for the work as a whole. However, I soon realized that it was counterproductive to marry an abstract formal concept with the existing shape of each poem and so I reconciled myself to writing each piece with a loose, madrigalian sense of form—one dictated by verse structure and content. The piece deals with the subjects of mankind and humanity, and was written at a time when global news was filled with stories of terrible racial and religious division, violence, unimaginable brutality and a gnawing sense of dread. Perhaps it was ever thus… So it is that the first movement of the piece reflects such a mood in its tortuous harmonies and pained outbursts, as Whittier’s plea from centuries ago for real brotherhood amongst humanity cries ever more desperately. The contrasting slow movement comes in the form of a nocturne as Bradstreet seeks divine inspiration for calm and fulfilment.

The third movement, the scherzo of the ‘symphony’, is something of a reminder of women’s essential place in ‘man’-kind. The lively, three-part upper-voice texture contrasts with something perhaps a little more rough-hewn in the combined lower voices, whose message is still as full of hope and wonder. The final published poem lacks its dedication to a Mr Galloway (about whom there is no record) and his name appears only as ‘G——’; however, the earlier draft I use contains his full name in the text.

The finale is a tour de force for the choir; in multiple parts and at a heady pace, the singers declaim a poem found at the end of Pennington’s book The Fugitive Blacksmith, an account of his flight from slavery and regeneration into American society. The poet is listed only as ‘a friend of the author’; I have selected several of the verses for musical setting. It is sometimes difficult in this cynical age to take hope and inspiration from such words, and yet Pennington’s story expresses the best of the American ideal—a concept the English often have trouble grasping. The youthful performers of the Schola Cantorum of Yale have no such reserve in responding to the words and sentiment, especially of the last verse.

from notes by Roderick Williams © 2019

Recordings

New England Choirworks
CDA68314 29 November 2019 Release

Details

Movement 1: O brother man
author of text

Track 2 on CDA68314 [3'46] 29 November 2019 Release
Movement 2: By night when others soundly slept
author of text

Track 3 on CDA68314 [5'18] 29 November 2019 Release
Movement 3: Divine Humanity! Behold  Lo! for this dark terrestrial Dome
author of text

Track 4 on CDA68314 [4'26] 29 November 2019 Release
Movement 4: Liberty's champion  On the wings of the wind he comes, he comes!
author of text
from 'The fugitive blacksmith'

Track 5 on CDA68314 [8'03] 29 November 2019 Release

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