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Texas native William Francis McBeth (1933-2012) was a prolific composer for many media, especially wind band, and a revered conductor and educator.  He spent his entire career at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, where he was a professor of music as well as composer-in-residence.  While there, he also conducted the Arkansas Symphony.  He named Arkansas’s Composer Laureate in 1975, making him the first Composer Laureate in the United States.  He had many famous students throughout his career, including Wynton and Branford Marsalis, composer Steven Bryant, and future president Bill Clinton, who played under him in the Arkansas All-State Band in 1962.

McBeth wrote Grace Praeludium in 1982.  It highlights his characteristic use of extended tonality and his talent for orchestration.  He provides his own program note in the score:

GRACE PRAELUDIUM was commissioned by the Arkansas Bandmasters Association in celebration of Ruth and Raymond Brandon for what they have meant and still mean to Arkansas bandmasters.  It was first performed by the Arkansas All-State Band in February 1982 with the composer conducting.

J. Raymond Brandon began his teaching career in Arkansas in 1922 and in 1950 became conductor of bands at North Little Rock High School where he served until his retirement in 1973.  During these 23 years the North Little Rock High School Band set a standard of excellence for the state.  In 1977 at the 25th anniversary of the American School Band Directors Association convention Raymond Brandon was presented the Goldman Award, the highest award of ASBDA.  He is also a past president of that organization.

He is presently the Executive Secretary (or should I say he and his wife Ruth are the Executive Secretaries) of the Arkansas Bandmasters Association.  He is the only living member in the Arkansas Bandmasters Hall of Fame.

Raymond Brandon was one of the most important friends and supporters that this composer had in his early career, and it is with love and admiration that this work is dedicated to him.

The “Grace” part of the title comes from the hymn that McBeth uses, the ever-popular “Amazing Grace”.  The first half of the piece only hints at the hymn melody, presenting fragments of it amidst a dramatic harmonic landscape.  This finally settles on an F-major chord shortly after the midpoint of the piece, allowing the hymn to be heard in full twice.  The dramatic harmonies return for a powerful coda.

The Quakertown (Pennsylvania) High School Symphonic Band plays Grace Praeludium:

For more on the hymntune “Amazing Grace”, visit my post about the settings of the hymn by Frank Ticheli and William Himes.  Sadly, there are no more internet resources for Grace Praeludium just yet.

Francis McBeth had enough fans in his lifetime to warrant pages on Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, and the Wind Repertory Project.  There are several memorial tributes to him as well, including at Ouachita University and the Arkansas Music Educators Association.  Finally, look at this interview he gave in 2010, less than two years before his passing.

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