An American Triptych

Randall Thompson: The Peaceable Kingdom

Randall Thompson (1899 – 1984) is considered to be one of the most popular twentieth century American choral composers. He was a native of New York City, studied at Harvard and taught at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Virginia. His choral works The Peaceable Kingdom, Frostiana, Testament of Freedom, andAlleluia are at the very heart of American choral literature.

The Peaceable Kingdom was first performed 3 March 1936 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For years it has served as the benchmark in American choral a cappella literature for its colorful and expressive text painting, vast emotional scope, and mastery of compositional technique. The title and subject may be attributed to Edward Hick’s painting of “The Peaceable Kingdom” illustrating Isaiah 11:6-9: “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb…” Hick is said to have painted over one hundred versions of this setting, one of the most well-known of which may be viewed at the Worcester Art Museum.

The first chorus contrasts the rewards of the righteous, who “shall sing for joy of heart,” with the fate of the wicked, who “shall howl for vexation of spirit.” The second chorus, “Woe Unto Them,” is a dramatic admonition to those who “regard not the Lord.” The third chorus continues to foretell the doom of the wicked, reaching a dramatic climax in the fourth movement “Howl Ye” for double antiphonal chorus. The fate of the wicked is finally stated:

“The paper reeds by the brooks, by the mouth of the brooks, and everything sown by the brooks shall wither, be driven away, and be no more.”

The remainder of the work is more optimistic, preparing us for God’s promise to the righteous and concluding with a majestic double chorus, “Ye Shall Have a Song.”

John Corigliano: Fern Hill 

John Corigliano, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Symphony No. 2, is internationally celebrated as one of the leading composers of his generation. Born in New York City on 16 February 1938, Corigliano comes from a musical family. His father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic from 1943 to 1966 and his mother is an accomplished pianist. Corigliano holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York, and in 1991 was named to the faculty of the Juilliard School. Also in 1991 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, an organization of 250 of America’s most prominent artists, sculptors, architects, writers, and composers. In 1992, Musical America named him their first “Composer of the Year.”

In 1959 Corigliano was introduced to the poems of Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet whose mastery of imagery in both meaning of the word and the sound of the word is unchallenged. The musical qualities of Dylan’s poetry is readily apparent and Thomas’ own words reinforce this:

“What the words stood for, symbolized, or meant was of very secondary importance; what matters was the sound of them… and these words… were as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments.”

Corigliano was irresistibly drawn to try to translate Thomas’ words into music. He was captivated by Fern Hill, about the poet’s “young and easy” summers at his family’s farm of the same name.

Corigliano writes:

Fern Hill is a blithe poem, yet touched by darkness; time rules over all, finally holding the poet ‘green and dying,’ but the poem itself, formally just a simple ABA song extended into a wide arch, sings of the joy of youth and its keen perceptions. I set it for mezzo-soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra, aiming in the music to match the forthright lyricism of the text. (The direction ‘with simplicity’ is often to be found in the printed score.) This was the first time that I set a poem of Dylan Thomas’ when I was, emotionally at least, the same age as its creator.”

Howard Hanson: Song of Democracy

Howard Hanson was born in the very heartland of the United States – Wahoo, Nebraska – on 28 October 1896. His parents emigrated from Sweden to America when they were young, and his Scandinavian roots played a very important role in Hanson’s aesthetic and spiritual make-up. Taught music first by his mother, he determined on a career in that field and began his formal musical education at Luther College in his hometown. He continued his studies at the Institute of Musical Art and at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

In a far reaching move that was to have a decisive effect on music education in the United States, George Eastman in 1924 chose the young Hanson to be director of the recently founded Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Hanson was to head the school for forty years until his retirement in 1964. He made Eastman School one of the most influential music conservatories in the world by broadening its curriculum and raising the standards of its orchestra, the Eastman Philharmonic, to a near professional level. In 1925 he began a series of orchestral concerts – “American Music Festivals” – that served as a major showcase for the music of American composers, especially those associated with the Eastman School of Music.

a composer of choral music, Hanson enriched that repertoire with several of the most popular works for chorus and orchestra by an American composer, including Lament for Beowulf (1926), Songs from “Drum Taps” (1935, poetry by Walt Whitman), The Cherubic Hymn, and Song of Democracy (1957, Walt Whitman).

Hanson’s Song of Democracy was written by commission of the National Education Association and the Music Educators National Conference in commemoration of NEA’s one hundredth anniversary and the fiftieth anniversary of MENC. This composition was inspired by two Whitman poems, in particular one that was written to dedicate a public school in Camden, New Jersey.

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