Program Notes

This afternoon’s program encompasses a wide diversity of composers and musical styles that includes LGBTQ+ composers and two significant works by women of color. Together they create a montage loosely arranged in a historical arc, from the echoes of Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War, through World Wars I and II, to 9/11 and the Iraqi War. Each subset offers different perspectives that focus not just on the conflicts and human suffering they caused, but also on the values ostensibly being fought over: the promise of freedom, equality, and the words enshrined on the Statue of Liberty. In this Veteran’s Day Concert for Equality, we honor all who served, and all who suffered. We also stand with those, including members of our extended Coro family, whose desire to serve has been met with discrimination on the basis of their race, religion, sexuality, or gender identity or expression.

Aaron Copland, Choral Finale from Canticle of Freedom
Our program opens with a composer, Aaron Copland, who in many ways defined the sound of American classical music. In 1953, however, the gay, Jewish, left-wing Copland was denounced by Illinois Congressman Fred Busbey who successfully agitated to have A Lincoln Portrait struck from the program of President Eisenhower’s first inaugural concert. Shortly afterwards, Copland himself was called before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and grilled about his rumored communist sympathies and friends by chief counsel Roy Cohn. The Canticle of Freedom was his response.

MIT commissioned the work to mark the 1955 opening of Kresge Auditorium in what was clearly an affirmation of the principles of artistic and academic freedom. Copland joked about dedicating the piece to Fred Busbey, but some have read it as a nod to the civil rights movement. The text excerpts a 14th-century epic by John Barbour, celebrating Robert the Bruce and Scotland’s struggle for independence from England. Copland wanted the work to “make a big noise” (as you can hear in the percussive piano part). In contrast, the sonorous choral writing of his modern canticle draws on neomedieval techniques: mixed meter, vocal groupings, canons, and the parallel 5th, 4ths, and unisons of organum (an early form of polyphony). At the core of Copland’s splendid gesture of musical courage is the “Scotch-snap” syncopated rhythm of the word “Freedom” that it celebrates.

Florence Price, Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
Composer Florence Price was the first African American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony in E minor in 1933. One of the most prolific American composers, Price wrote over 300 works. Her songs and arrangements were performed by the most admired voices of her day, including Marian Anderson, who closed her famous 1939 recital at the Lincoln Memorial with a spiritual that Price arranged. Despite such support from African American artists, the composer struggled with institutional racism after her early acclaim. As she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky in 1943, “To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.”

In 2009, over 50 years after her death, a substantial collection of her works was found in an abandoned house on the outskirts of Chicago,sparking a major reevaluation of her role in American musical history. Among them was Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, a 30-minute setting of a poem by Vachel Lindsay. Today we perform an edition by Coro Allegro alumnus Dr. Michael Driscoll, originally premiered by the Andover Choral Society under his direction.

It is not known when Price wrote her work, but Lindsay’s anti-war poem is curiously timeless, evoking the ghost of one war to deplore another. Written in 1914, it was the poet’s outcry against WWI and the suffering of the poor at the hands of Europe’s rulers. Lincoln’s ghost restlessly wanders through Illinois, unable to rest in his grave. Haunted by the spectre of modern dreadnoughts and warlords, Lincoln carries on his shoulders like his shawl “the bitterness, the folly and the pain” of knowing that the lessons of the Civil War have been forgotten.

Price is one of a long line of 20th century composers concerned with incorporating vernacular forms into art music. Her integration of various musical forms from African American and European traditions is notable for its particular seamless grace, a quality that also marks her counterpoint and text setting. She opens by introducing Lincoln (pulling out a line from the third stanza to do so) with the characteristic warmth in her treatment of him. An extended overture follows, with echoes of Mendelssohnian march alternating with the poignant melody and rich chordal harmonies of a traditional sorrow song. As the chorus takes over, Price employs a diverse array of romantic sweeping gestures, weighty dirges, and almost Baroque fury to evoke the horrors of war. She ends with a stately fugue out of an earlier time and sonorous calls for peace. Price’s eloquent pastiche of musical style and history underlines the point of the poem, that the suffering of war is universal, though the ghosts come and go.
— With gratitude to Michael Driscoll

Irving Berlin, “Give me your tired, your poor” from Miss Liberty
Irving Berlin closed his 1949 musical about the Statue of Liberty with a setting of “The New Colossus,” a poem by Emma Lazarus mounted on a brass plaque on its pedestal. These words had resonance for Berlin. The Statue of Liberty, with her torch upraised, was the first thing five-year-old Izzy Baline (as he was then known) saw of America from the boat, as he and his family arrived seeking refuge from the terror of anti-Jewish programs in Russia. This impoverished immigrant, part of the great waves of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who arrived on our shores in the 1880s and 90s, grew up to write a large part of the Great American Songbook—1,500 songs, the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films earning eight Academy Award nominations. Per composer Jerome Kern, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”

Composer Craig Carnahan on Armistice 1918 (Everyone Sang):
“Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Everyone Sang” was written in April of 1919, shortly after the end of World War I. Sassoon was an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and even though he didn’t serve on the front lines, it is safe to assume that his experiences during the war had a profound impact on his life and work. Much has been written about this poem, and there are conflicting interpretations of Sassoon’s intent. Some argue that his reference to “singing” literally represents the troops’ celebration upon receiving news that an armistice had been reached. Others, drawing from Sassoon’s own account, see his use of “singing” as a metaphor for the social revolution he hoped was imminent. I was drawn to the contrasting moods found in the poetry—at times ecstatic and exuberant, and at other times subdued and reflective. There is joy that the war has ended, but sadness at the tremendous loss. Throughout, two images dominate: the communal power of voices united in song and the unbridled joy of freedom embodied by birds in flight. This, then, is a celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit, building to the powerful closing “...and the song was wordless, the singing will never be done."

Melissa Dunphy, What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?
Melissa Dunphy has no issues identifying herself as a political composer: “When I realized what I wanted to do as a composer, I realized it sounded much more like a political mission, than purely an artistic mission… I want to bring voices to the forefront that haven’t had a voice before.” Dunphy, an Austrailian immigrant and Asian American chose to highlight a voice quite different from her own in Philip Spooner, a WWII Veteran, “86 years old and a lifetime Republican,” who gave moving testimony in favor of marriage equality to the Maine Senate in 2009. Dunphy’s work weaves the multiple lines of the chorus to set not only the words of his testimony but also the character of his voice. Her shifting choral textures and rhythms bring out nuances of delivery mixed with echoes of memories and context and belief. Her choral writing is theatrical, not in the sense of dramatic gesture —although that is there in the tortured confusion of the women who asks: “Do you believe in Equality for Gay and Lesbian people?” Dunphy’s theater resides in the small complex harmonic progressions that depict the speaker’s thought process as he muses how to reply. His answer, itself a question, “What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?” emerges beautifully in its simplicity and its courage. We hear it first in one voice, then two, then in a chorus rising together to affirm “the values of freedom and equality that make America a great nation.” In the end, no voice is to be left out.

Composer Peter Eldridge on the premiere of “To Be Nobody,” written for David Hodgkins and the 25th anniversary of Coro Allegro:
“I had carried a crumpled up piece of paper containing an e. e. cummings quote (along with a few other quotes I found inspiring) in my wallet for a number of years, waiting for the perfect opportunity to set it. When David asked me to write a piece for the group, I thought the moment had finally arrived. The quote is particularly timely these days, given the current administration we are having to deal with, and with the underlying feelings of uncertainty and segregation getting the best of so many people. And obviously the quote applies in a loving and respectful way to the LGBTQ community, saying that being true to who you really are is ultimately all that matters in life. I feel like the music represents something of a slow meditative march, coming face to face with those who might feel differently, and ultimately (and peacefully) rising above it all.”

Lee Hoiby, Last Letter Home
Private 1st Class Jesse Givens of Springfield, Missouri was killed in Iraq on May 1, 2003, when the riverbank on which his tank was parked gave way, drowning him in the Euphrates River. Two weeks earlier, he had written a letter to his pregnant wife Melissa, his six-year-old stepson Dakota (nicknamed “Toad”), and his unborn son, with instructions that it be opened only in the event of his death. The letter arrived a month after his funeral, and was delivered to his wife in the maternity ward where she had just given birth to the child he never saw.

Composer Lee Hoiby read the letter after it was published in The New York Times. “I thought right away of this soldier sitting in his barracks at night, probably chewing a pencil, and trying to find words for such a message. It was a very intimate letter. The kind of a letter that you would never expect to read from a husband to his wife. That's what lends it further power.”

The letter moves rapidly through a gamut of emotions, from gratitude and humor to grief and guilt. It offers reassurance and pride, frustration, regret and generosity, with an underlying current of tenderness and care. Hoiby’s setting draws on a broad palette of harmonic colors that capture the inflections and images of the text, and his metrical structure is so sensitive to the natural rhythms of speech that you can almost hear the voice of Jesse Givens, trying to speak beyond its lines.

Composer Shawn Crouch on Lullaby:
“Lullaby is a single movement from the major work Paradise. This single movement sets a poem [“The Ar Harishima Weapons Market” from the collection Here, Bullet] by Iraq War veteran Brian Turner, whose moving accounts of the war are vivid and powerful. Having a brother who served two tours of duty in Iraq in the Marine Corps, I was drawn to the visceral images of war that Turner paints with his text. In the music, I emphasize the lyrical qualities and changing colors of the poems through arching musical lines that often layer upon themselves. Here in Lullaby, a father seeks ways to comfort his child and himself as the sounds of war ring out all around them.”

Composer David Ludwig on The New Colossus:
“The New Colossus was written for conductor Judith Clurman and the Todi music singers. Ms. Clurman recommended that I set the poem by Emma Lazarus that is at the site of the Statue of Liberty. On reading these words, I was very moved by the sentiment of welcome that Lazarus—herself an immigrant—conveys in the message: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” And it is not just some people that the Statue welcomes, but everyone—even the “wretched refuse.” This to me was the true spirit of the United States embodied in poetry: our strength in diversity and tolerance. I wrote the work soon after 9/11, and because of that, the words of the poet were particularly poignant to me.

The piece begins in somber unison and remains in that setting, like chant, as the poet compares the Statue of Liberty to the Colossus of Rhodes from ancient Greece. It is not like the Colossus, she notes, in that it is not meant to be an imposing figure but instead the embracing “mother of exiles.” At the most famous lines the music opens up into harmony until the end, repeating the words “I lift my lamp, beside the Golden Door”—to the port of entry of a nation of immigrants.”

The New Colossus was played as the introitus for the prayer service of the 57th Presidential Inauguration as Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term.

Richard Rodgers, “You'll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel.
The Orlando Gay Chorus sang this Rogers and Hammerstein show tune at the international LGBTQ+ GALA Choruses Festival in response to the Pulse Massacre. Members of Coro Allegro and thousands of other LGBTQ+ and allied singers in the audience sang along. It resonates for Artistic Director David Hodgkins as it has for so many, due to “the universality of people helping each other. Singing it reminds you that you can have courage, knowing that other people will stand with you.”

Program notes © Yoshi Campbell and David Hodgkins