Practicing Peace – a Celebration of the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sunday, January 18, 7:30 PM
The Purnell School, Pottersville, NJ
Program notes- Objective Art during Unsettling Times
It is often said of Stravinsky that his music studiously avoids overt autobiographical references in favor of an artistic detachment. This is really a half-truth. Stravinsky relates much of his personal experience through music, but often transmits these scraps of biography in codes and ciphers so that the listener must dig beneath the surface to find them.
Although it was composed in the midst of both World War I and the Russian Revolution, The Soldier’s Tale (1918) makes no direct mention of either of these events. Instead, Stravinsky chose (in collaboration with librettist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz) to base the work on stories of forced conscription from another conflict – the Russo-Turkish War of the 19th Century. Ramuz and Stravinsky used these stories, particularly the idea of Rekrutskya songs (the laments of wives and girlfriends abandoned as a result of the conscription), as a means to express some of the turmoil and hardship of World War I, without having to specifically comment on current events. They further refined their libretto so that it would not even mention the Russo-Turkish conflict directly – allowing Soldier’s Tale to be applicable to any nations at war.
The universal character of the piece is further supported by its resemblance to and reliance upon two archetypal stories from Western Literature: the Faust story (the Soldier vying with the Devil for a violin which represents his soul) and the Myth of Orpheus (the Soldier looking back for his princess, only to become the Devil’s prisoner once again).
The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that
recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children. The only
normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows judgment to
run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965
Darren Gage’s work normalcy (2001) is inspired by a more recent conflagration- the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The piece was written for the same instrumentation as The Soldier’s Tale (an unusual ensemble consisting of clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, bass, and percussion), but the similarity between the two works does not end there. As in the Stravinsky piece, in normalcy we see an attempt to frame the emotional impact of current events in music, but in a similarly detached fashion.
Rather than creating a work that is overtly programmatic, Gage chooses instead to subtly embed a cipher in the work, the ordered pitch class set 9-1-1-2-0-0-1, a musical representation of the now infamous date, which serves as a kind of ostinato throughout. The search for ‘normalcy’ is further characterized by the juxtaposition of the a-c minor third and the a-c# major third as a kind of chiaroscuro (light-dark) effect. The use of both the ostinato and thirds causes this piece to have a more regular cycling of pitch material than much of Gage’s other, more chromatic, concert music, which is instead concerned with extensions of the twelve-tone system. As such, the subliminal use of the date as an organizing factor in normalcy has a profound effect on the overall sound of the piece.
Despite the temporal distance between the events of 9/11 and today, many still struggle to return to a sense of everyday life. Bad news has been abundant of late, both domestically and internationally, and it is easy to feel a sense of dislocation and dispiritedness as a result. normalcy depicts this struggle through its reiteration of thirds, with their diatonic minor-major key implications. On the cusp of Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, one may hear this dichotomy as a commingling of hopeful anticipation with an awareness of the damage wrought during the past eight years; an acknowledgment of our continued need for healing.
We are reminded of this duality of hopeful anticipation and needed prayers for healing in the songs we hear tonight as well. “I, Too” is a setting by Margaret Bonds of a poem by Langston Hughes (Westfield, New Jersey), one of the most eloquent voices for racial equality among poets during the mid-Twentieth century. “Old Man River” was a staple of Paul Robeson’s; Robeson (born Princeton, New Jersey) was a dedicated advocated for peace, tolerance, and racial equality. He used music as a powerful yet peaceful weapon against tyranny and oppression. It’s taken from the 1927 Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein Broadway musical Showboat; a work that was groundbreaking in its time for dealing with racism frankly and compassionately in a genre previously known for insensitive portrayals. “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “Down by the Riverside” are beloved spirituals, identified both with the rich African-American musical repertoire and with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
The words of Dr. King quoted above indicate that the quest for a more equitable version of normalcy has been a long one, and will require continued vigilance. But on the eve of an historic inaugural, it is in the spirit of hope and healing, with renewed commitment to a peaceful pursuit of freedom, that we commemorate Dr. King’s legacy today, with sober reflections and joyful songs.