Several different varieties of American music are represented on this recording, ranging from vernacular New England colonial anthems and songs from around the time of the Revolution; hymns from 19th-century shape-note tunebooks; popular songs from the early to mid-19th century; and Civil War songs from the battlefield, to the music of Charles Ives, Horatio Parker, and Randall Thompson, representing the cultivated tradition in the United States: music that might be considered “populist” but which contains highly sophisticated compositional elements.
In the United States, the years from 1770 through the beginning of the first third of the 20th century marked a period charged with revolution, numerous wars (both civil and international), mass religious conversion, accumulation of wealth, and Westward expansion. These years also encompassed a move toward modernism, both artistically and technologically.
Music from New England at the time of the Revolution had its origins in the singing schools established in Boston around 1722. During that time there had been great agitation among Puritan ministers regarding the quality of congregational singing, and the singing schools were designed to remedy this malaise. By the 1760s, a group of composers sometimes referred to as the “First New England School of Composers” began publishing tunebooks. William Billings (1746-1800), a Boston tanner turned composer, is the most famous of that group, and his tune Chester became a popular rallying song during the Revolution. By the beginning of the 19th century, a system using shaped notes was introduced, with the publication of the Easy Instructor. This combination tunebook and instructional manual outlined a pedagogical method in which music was made easier to read by using four different note shapes, each with a designation fa, sol, la, or mi. Shape-note tunebooks exploded in the South as New England turned to more traditional means of music education during the mid- to early 19th century. The occasions during which this music is sung are called “singings” and are not worship services but events unto themselves, in which church and community members gather and sing for three days, sometimes six hours a day. The music itself is marked by an intense rhythmic quality, and, like many of the anthems from the colonial period, the melody is found in the tenor line. Many of the most famous American hymns, including Amazing Grace, had their origins in the most popular tunebooks, Southern Harmony and Sacred Harp, both from 1844, and The Social Harp, published in 1855.
During the mid-19th century there was a noteworthy growth in the sheet music industry, and composers like Stephen Foster (1826-1864) had successful careers as songwriters thanks to this new market expansion. Parlor songs, as this type of music came to be called, were frequently about idealized love and longing—especially a nostalgia for some undefined past. These songs were sung in concert settings and at home around the family piano. The Civil War songs, along with the growth of photography and journalism, are one of the more interesting artistic outbursts toward the end of American Romanticism. Many forgotten composers contributed to this genre, but one piece that stands out, not as propaganda but true insight into the destruction of war, is Tenting on the Old Camp Ground. The imagery of this song suggests the wartime poetry of Walt Whitman, and its realism transcends any morose sentimentality.
By the end of the Civil War, the seeds of American modernism became more visible, especially in the literature of the period. Caught between a certain sentimentality for an unknown past and a marked modernist tendency, Charles Ives embodies the conflict between the progressive leanings felt during the end of the 19th century and the fear of losing contact with one’s beginnings. Ives studied composition with Horatio Parker (1863-1919) at Yale. Parker’s most famous oratorio, Hora Novissima (1893), based on texts by Bernard de Morlaix, won him international acclaim. Ives and Parker were not ideally suited for one another, mainly because Parker was an intensely conservative composer, steeped in a specific kind of Romanticism (he considered Wagner a dangerous radical and Brahms a harsh intellectual). Young Ives had been taught by his father, George (1845-1894), and together they had enjoyed a sense of experimentation that included polytonality and rhythmic complexity. During his first year at Yale, Charles wrote his father a letter describing Parker’s reaction to one of his songs, “At Parting.” George wrote back: “Tell Parker that every dissonance doesn’t need to resolve, if it doesn’t happen to feel like it, any more than every horse should have its tail bobbed just because it is the prevailing fashion.”
While Ives’s setting of the 67th Psalm has many of the traits of colonial music, complete with a “fuging tune” in the middle of the piece, it is the harmony that is most often discussed. Ives frames the fugue with what is essentially a new idea about harmony, fitting two chords together to create a distinct kind of tonality. Composed around 1898, Psalm 67 was one of Ives’s first published pieces, although it didn’t come out until 1939. His oratorio The Celestial Country was premiered in April 1902 at Central Presbyterian Church in New York, where Ives was organist. The piece was modeled on Parker’s oratorio Hora Novissima. The reviews of the premiere were polite, with The New York Times saying, “It has the elementary merit of being scholarly and well made. But it is also spirited and melodious.” Two weeks after the premiere, Ives resigned his position at Central Presbyterian and never applied for another professional position in music. It would be some twenty years before another one of his works would be heard in public.
Psalm 90, composed sometime between 1923 and 1924, is one of Ives’s greatest works, with Ives himself commenting to his wife that it was one of the few works with which he was satisfied. The piece is a reconstruction, apparently from memory, of an earlier setting; it has been suggested that the impetus for this reworking was the suicide of David Twitchell, who was the brother of Ives’s wife, Harmony. At the beginning of the psalm, Ives musically presents five ideas: Eternities, Creation, God’s Wrath against Sin, Prayer and Humility, and Rejoicing in Beauty and Work. These musical ideas are heard separately and sometimes together as accompaniment for the verses of the psalm. Perhaps the most famous section of the piece occurs in the ninth verse (“For all our days are passed away in thy wrath; we spend our years as a tale that is told”). The choir begins on a unison C, followed by the upper voice moving up one whole-step. This is mirrored in the lowest voice, which moves down one whole-step at the same time. Ives continues this technique, resulting in a cluster of 21 pitches, which then contracts backwards into a single pitch. The final four verses of the psalm are a combination of the five musical ideas described above, together with the chorus singing in a hymn-like fashion. If ever a composer wanted to musically describe peace and tranquility, here is one of the most sublime examples.
Later into the 20th century, especially after World War II, American composers made a shift from the more public sphere into the academic world. While some composers insisted on writing difficult atonal music, which was the prevailing fashion, some, like Randall Thompson (1899-1984), maintained a more populist position. A prominent figure in 20th-century American choral music, Thompson composed three symphonies and two string quartets in addition to his choral works, which include the popular Alleluia. The Last Words of David was commissioned in 1949 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in honor of Serge Koussevitzky’s 25th anniversary as Music Director. The piece takes its text from II Samuel 23:3-4.
While this recording does not take into account American choral music in the second half of the 20th century, it does provide evidence of what amounts to “source material” for a number of important composers, especially those working in the minimalist and post-minimalist style. William Duckworth in his Southern Harmony and Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Etudes use both the vernacular and cultivated tradition as inspiration for these important choral works. These works and others in that vein might be regarded as the culmination or even the definition of an American choral school of thought, one which sees little difference between the cultivated and vernacular, and one which is thoroughly American in its integration of style and manner.
— James Bagwell