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Program Notes: Americana Pieces

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

We’re continuing on with our explanation of Program Notes – this week’s topic: Americana Pieces! What does that mean? Americana music started in the colonial period and was developed strictly for its practical nature (think religion). It was used mainly for church where instruments were not yet allowed, so music was primarily choral. By the nineteenth century, American composers embraced the European concept of concerts and began composing full-blown works to be performed with instrumentation outside of the church. We are singing several pieces composed by American composers on our October 5th Concert.

What’s on this concert

Our first piece comes from one of our treasured arrangers, Alice Parker. Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal is a lively arrangement of the original tune “Invitation” from the Sacred Harp.

Shawn Kirchner

We are singing a piece by Shawn Kirchner called Unclouded Day. It is a setting of an early American gospel tune by J.K. Alwood, who was a Circuit-Riding Preacher in the American Midwest. The following are Alwood’s own words about the inspiration for the piece:

“It was a balmy night in August 1879, when returning from a debate in Spring Hill, Ohio, to my home in Morenci, Michigan, about 1 o’clock a.m. I saw a beautiful rainbow north by northwest against a dense black nimbus cloud. The sky was all perfect clear except this dark cloud which covered about forty degrees of the horizon and extended about halfway to the zenith. The phenomenon was entirely new to me and very lovely. I had traveled ten miles from the scene of mental toil. To awake and look abroad and remember the night was to be filled with sweet melody. A while at the organ brought forth a piece of music now known as “The Unclouded Day.” A day and a half was bestowed on the melody and four stanzas.”

Randall Thompson

Randall Thompson (1899-1984) was an American composer from Boston, Massachusetts that was most known for his choral music. He studied at Harvard University, and later went on to be a professor at Princeton. We are singing Choose Something Like a Star, the seventh and final movement from is Frostiana Suite. It is set to Frost’s poem “Choose Something Like a Star”. This beautiful text may seem simple at first glance, but it portrays an incredibly complex underlying meaning.

The poem suggests that the narrator feels uncomfortable with all the uncertainty in the universe, and it seems as though they are almost chastising the star for not revealing to us the secrets of its being. Frost implies that man believes we have a right to understand every mystery in the universe, and when we don’t, we get frustrated. The conclusion of the poem suggests the narrator accepts the uncertainty and is finally able to find comfort in it, as he releases his need for hard facts and knowledge, and relaxes into the peace found amongst the unknown.

Peter Wilhousky

The Battle Hymn of the Republic (also known as “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”) is an arrangement we’re doing, taken from the lyrics of abolitionist writer, Julia Ward Howe, using the music from the song “John Brown’s Body.” Howe’s more famous lyrics were written in November 1861 and first published in The Atlantic Monthly in February of 1862. The song links the judgement of the wicked at the end of the age (old Testament, Isaiah 63, New Testament, Revelation 19) with the American Civil War.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on. Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on. I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps. They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps; I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps, His day is marching on. In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me; As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free! While God is marching on.

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