After attending an Albany Pro Musica concert in 2006 that featured a famous silent movie about Joan of Arc, Robert Bullock knew he could fulfill his dream to bring the music and words of the Civil War to life.
“It was the way the concert paired the music and words,” he said. “[APM Music Director] David Griggs-Janower had a clear vision.”
This year was the year to do it because it’s the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. When Bullock, who is the president of the state’s Archives Partnership Trust, knew he’d be involved with a symposium at Albany Law School about the war, he said a concert would be a perfect way to conclude the event. He suggested his idea to Griggs-Janower, who quickly agreed.
They decided on a concert for this Saturday, titled “John Brown’s Body.” The APM will sing music either written during the 19th century or pertaining to the Civil War. Five people will read letters or speeches written during the period. Images of the war will also be shown.
Bullock chose most of the material.
For Gazette music writer Geraldine Freedman's review of this show, click here.
Treasury of material
“The trust has a trove of material with 2 million copies going back to 1630,” he said. “But mostly it’s government documents. These don’t have poetry. So we pulled from stuff in the public domain. ”
Bullock got some suggestions from Harold Holzer, a Lincoln scholar and an authority on the Civil War and the master of ceremonies for the evening. He wanted “a strong Abe” represented with more of Lincoln’s writings, Bullock said. Other people, such as John Brown, couldn’t be left out, and many of the letters could be by any man and speak to the role of a warrior in wartime, Bullock said.
Barbara Smith from Albany’s Common Council will read letters written by an African-American woman about the slave experience; Albany County District Attorney David Soares will read a Frederick Douglass speech; Times Union editor Rex Smith, who also sings with the APM, will read John Brown’s speech; Bullock will read a speech Lincoln gave at New York City’s Cooper Union; and Benita Zahn of WNYT will read a letter written by a Civil War officer to his wife before a battle.
Working with all this material was a challenge, Griggs-Janower said.
“It was intriguing to put a flow to the program,” he said.
He chose one of the most patriotic hymns, “American the Beautiful,” written by Katherine Lee Bates and organist Samuel Ward and published in 1910. Kirke Mechem’s “Songs of the Slave” Suite, which premiered in 1994, is from his “John Brown” opera, which didn’t receive its premiere until 2008 by Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
The suite’s first movement is based on Brown’s favorite hymn, “Blow Ye the Trumpet,” which is a very beautiful and sensitive hymn, Griggs-Janower said. The second movement, which has a bass solo that will be sung by Keith Kibler, is based on Frederick Douglass’ words about the plight of the slaves and is very stirring.
The third movement has Harriet Newby’s letter in which she fears she’ll be sold into slavery if her husband, who went out on Brown’s famous Harper’s Ferry Raid, doesn’t return. Soprano Karen Slack will sing this solo. The finale called “Dan-u-el” is about a black boy that Brown saved and is written in a rhythmic style akin to a spiritual.
“The music is very hard but very beautiful and stirring,” Griggs-Janower said. “It’s new to the chorus.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ passionate “Dona Nobis Pacem” will also be featured.
Based on Walt Whitman’s Civil War texts, the work premiered in 1936. “It’s one of the greatest pieces ever and one of the most sublime and most stirring war pieces. It’s gorgeous,” Griggs-Janower said. “APM did it 10 years ago and it’s not done often.”
The cantata will require large forces: 100 plus voices and a 40-piece orchestra along with Kibler and Slack. The Saratoga Choraliers of Saratoga Springs High School will supplement the APM, he said.
There will also be other songs and writings and perhaps the story of the bugle call taps, which may be played and its lyrics sung, Bullock said.
“It’s [all] iconic material, . . . and the music will be emblematic to people’s lives,” he said.