Sunday, March 29, 2015

Easter Music Made In USA

Throughout history composers have written music inspired by Christ's suffering on the cross, his death and resurrection. Some of the best Easter music has come to the United States from Europe. But Americans have been creating their own religious music from the earliest days, first imitating classical composers, but very soon finding their own expression. Here is a brief introduction to Easter music made in the U.S.A.

The earliest Easter compositions made in the United States were introduced to me by Robert Saladini, former head of the music department at the Library of Congress. One of the oldest anthems still recorded and performed is The Lord Is Risen Indeed by William Billings, who lived in the Boston area in the second half of the 18th century.

In the early years of American independence, itinerant singing masters flourished in New England. They are also known as New England psalmodists. Some of these singers composed their own songs.

"Their music was characterized by somewhat jagged melodies often times, and what a lot of musicians will call open fifths. So you'll hear this almost primitive sound. At this time in Europe, of course, this sound would have sounded very old fashioned to a lot of the cultured ears," said Saladini.

Few of these New England musicians had formal music education and many had other professions. Billings, for example was a tanner, like his father. His knowledge of music probably came from a choral singing school, and he most likely taught himself composition by studying choral works of English composers. Many of his tunes have remained popular for more than two centuries. The psalm When Jesus Wept stands out for its simple beauty, said Saladini.

"It is a round. It is probably one of the most well-known pieces of early American music, certainly a piece that was done throughout the 18th century and the 19th century, and is still performed by American school children, and sung in churches." 

New England musicians created sacred music intended for singing by their friends and neighbors. So their songs were popular. Billings is considered to be the foremost in the group, but works by many other composers also have survived, said Saladini. An example is Crucifixion, signed by M. Kyes, recorded in a late 18th century Connecticut tunebook. The music is set to a poem by early 18th-century clergyman and poet Samuel Wesley.

Early American immigrants were primarily concerend with their daily survival in a new land so their celebrations were not as musically elaborate as those in Europe and other continents. Very few pieces were composed especially for Easter, and it is questionable whether all the New England religious sects even observed the holy day, Saladini said. Subsequent immigrants groups, including the Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Slavs, brought with them their rich Easter traditions. But we have African-American slaves to thank for some of the most beautiful religious songs, known as spirituals. Many of them, such as Were You There remain popular not only in this country, but throughout the world.

"But we do see with the slave society, we see a lot of music that may be associated with the Lenten season or with Good Friday. I think a lot of the slaves could identify with Christ's suffering on the cross. We see pieces like He Never Said a Mumbling Word and they all sort of reflect the sadness of the crucifixion and it is something the slaves certainly could relate to," said Saladini.

By the end of the 19th century, almost every major church in the United States performed an Easter oratorio, or produced a similar music event for the season. But, Saldini said, most of the pieces performed were by European composers or had a distinctly European sound. It was only in the 20th century that American composers began incorporating new elements such as jazz and folk in their music, and creating a uniquely American sound.

Randall Thompson's Alleluia is one of the best known and most frequently performed 20th century sacred pieces in the United States. It has been called the bedrock of contemporary choral literature, said Saladini. The work was commissioned for the 1940 opening of the now famous Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. By that time, Thompson had established himself as a composer whose work is characterized by a harmonically simple, so-called American sound, that incorporates folk and popular themes. Alleluia is regularly performed on important festive occasions, such a Easter.

In the early 1960s, composer Ron Nelson presented his coral work Behold Man, set to words by contemporary American writer Albert van Nostrand. In this solemn religious piece, the poet and the composer remind Christians to "Behold man! God summoned yet God bound." Nelson has been described as quintessential American composer who moves easily between conservative and new styles. He has written many sacred as well as secular compositions.

Several decades later, composer and organist Gerre Hancock of New York wrote a solemn composition for chorus and organ titled the Introit for the Feast Day. Like Randall Thompson's Alleluia, its text also consists of only one word - Alleluia - and is often performed during Easter season.

Gerre Hancock
By the arrival of the 21st century, American composers have developed quite another idea of music, said Saladini. Some of the new styles embrace older music, such as Gregorian chant, and update it with jazz and other elements. Works of Frank Ferko from Chicago exemplify this trend.

But a growing number of new pieces in traditional style also are commissioned from contemporary composers. One example is The Passion and The Promise, an oratorio by Dan Gawthrop from Virginia. It premiered in 2001 in Idaho and was presented in Washington D.C. at Easter of the same year. I attended that performance. Gawthrop told me afterwards that he was not afraid of being described as old-fashioned. He said he wanted both the performers and the audience to enjoy his music.

"I deliberately write in a style which a non-specialist can find approachable and enjoyable. I feel we've not yet exhausted all of the possibilities that tonality has to offer. So my music always has a very clearly defined tonal center although that may shift quite frequently," said Gawthrop. "I am a great believer in melodies as a way of accenting a text and I love to explore harmonic things which people describe as fresh rather than off-putting."

What about trying out something entirely different? "I am not a great experimenter," said Gawthrop. "I am content to leave that to my colleagues, for the most part, and I am keenly interested in communicating with an audience," he said. Judging by the number of commissions he is getting for sacred works, Gawthrop said that kind of music seems to be enjoying a revival in America.

So if the sacred music composition had a slow beginning in the new world, it clearly is making up for it now.

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