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Category Archives: There’s No Place Like Home Concert

On this July 1, 2014, America stands divided politically after some contentious Supreme Court business, and yet we are united in our support of Team USA at the World Cup against Belgium this afternoon.  America is also united in looking forward to a nice, long, Fourth of July weekend coming up.  I can think of no better time to explore our unofficial national hymn, America the Beautiful.

The hymn really has two authors.  Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) wrote the words, inspired by a visit to Pikes Peak in Colorado and other western vistas.  She was a distinguished professor of English at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who agitated for American involvement in the League of Nations and lived with a female partner for 25 years.  Her poem, originally entitled simply America, was published on July 4th, 1895.  Samuel Augustus Ward (1847-1903) wrote the tune, which he called Materna, in 1882.  He was a church organist in New Jersey and the last descendent in a long line of Samuel Wards that started with a Rhode Island governor and Continental Congress delegate.  Ward and Bates would never meet.  Their works were not combined until a 1910 publication, 7 years after Ward’s death, presented them in the form that is still familiar today.

There are few things more American than Mormons, so here is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with a very straight-ahead version of the hymn:

Gospel is certainly among the most uniquely American of musical genres.  Here is one of America’s greats, Ray Charles (who, it should be noted, could never behold the beauty of America himself) in 1972 with a truly heartfelt rendition.  Note that he starts with the third verse (see below), which seems to contain a call for putting country before self:

Of the many arrangements of America the Beautiful that exist for band, Carmen Dragon‘s is by far the most epic.  Dragon (1914-1984) was a conductor, composer, and arranger whose work included numerous film scores, a long engagement with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, and a long-running classical music radio show on the Armed Forces Network.  He unleashes the full color palate of the band and pushes the harmonic language as far as is possible in a traditional tune.  Here is his arrangement as performed by the US Navy Band, featuring the Sea Chanters Chorus:

Bates’s poem (presented here in its 1913 revision) captures the glory of the American landscape while calling for goodness, unity, and brotherhood from its people.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
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Patrick Burns (b. 1969) is an American composer and music educator.  He has written extensively for wind bands at all levels.  He founded the Bloomfield Youth Band in New Jersey when he was 17, and continues to direct that group today.   He teaches at Montclair State University and New Jersey City University.  His compositions, which range from beginning band to professional level,  have been performed on at least 3 continents.  He has received commissions from around the country.  He is much in demand as a guest conductor and clinician.

Burns offers his own program notes on Hometown:

I wrote Hometown for Scott Sharnetzka and the Bel Air (Maryland) Community Band.  This fine ensemble has been incredibly supportive of my music and I wanted to express my gratitude to them by writing a piece for them.  Hometown is a musical depiction of my impressions of beautiful Harford County, Maryland and the people I know there.  The words of Garrison Keillor capture the idea of this piece wonderfully:

That yard, the tree–you climbed it once with me,
And we talked of cities that we’d live in someday.
I left, old friend, and now I’m back again,
Please say you missed me since I went away.

Patrick Burns main website. – includes a full biography and information on all of his music.  You can also leave the website open as it automatically plays a random sampling of Burns’s music.  He’s written a lot of it, and it’s all good!  For our purposes, though, check out especially the “music” page, where you can download a free recording of Hometown in the grade 4 section.

Also check out Patrick Burns’s YouTube channel, which has performances of the great bulk of his music.  Here, for instance, is Hometown performed by the Luther College Wind Ensemble:

Oliver Caplan (b. 1982) is a Boston-based composer of romantically-tinged music for all combinations of instruments and voices.  He grew up in the Bronx, attending Stuyvesant high school, where he played piccolo in the band.  He left in New York in 2000 for Dartmouth College (he and I met and became friends there) where the rich outdoor environment and mix of musical personalities (like the Dartmouth College Marching Band) inspired his interest in composition.  He went on to study at the Boston Conservatory.  Caplan’s music has been performed all over the United States.  He has received commissions from the Columbia University Wind Ensemble, the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, the Juventas New Music Ensemble, and the Sinfonietta of Riverdale, among many others.  He has received numerous awards, having most recently been named as a Finalist for the American Prize in Composition.

Read more about Caplan on his website, his Twitter feed, and his Facebook page.  Also, consider taking a look at his CD, Illuminations.

Caplan wrote Reason for Hope in a Complex World in 2007 on a commission from the Columbia University Wind Ensemble.  He writes:

Commissioned by the Columbia University Wind Ensemble, Reason for Hope in a Complex World was inspired by the work and words of Jane Goodall. In Spring 2007 Dr. Goodall spoke in Boston, addressing the question: Is there hope for the future? Hope, she responded, stems from the incredible nature of the human spirit, but there is only hope if we all come together as a global community – we must each be a part of compassionate change.

The piece draws from this idea of binding together to become greater than the sum of our parts. Contrasting passages derive from a fanfare theme, presented in its entirety only at the work’s finale. The structure loosely resembles a theme and variations in reverse. The fanfare serves as a point of arrival that unifies the work’s various threads. In a sense, this mirrors Dr. Goodall’s idea of disparate people coming together to realize their common humanity.

The composition opens with chords meant to evoke the tolling of bell towers, focal points of community that mark the passage of time and call people together. Meanwhile, members of the ensemble murmur words of Walt Whitman about the busy egotism of society. The music proceeds through several sections – from urban-inspired reflections on constant sensory input to contemplations of spaces lonely and longing. The bell chords return, and finally the brass section presents a fanfare theme of hope.

You can listen to Reason for Hope in a Complex World on Caplan’s website (scroll all the way to the bottom and you’ll see it).  The performance is the Columbia University Wind Ensemble premiere at Dartmouth College in February, 2008.  You’ll hear some text in there – that’s from Walt Whitman, and reads as follows:

This is the city… and I am on of the
citizens.  Whatever interests the rest
interests me… politics, churches, schools, benevolent
societies, improvements, banks, tariffs, factories,
markets, stocks and stores and real estate and
personal estate.  They who piddle and patter here
in collars and tailed coats… I am aware who
they are… I acknowledge the duplicates
of myself under all the scrape-lipped and
pipe-legged concealments.  I know perfectly
well my own egotism.

Quicksand years that whirl me I know not whither.
Your schemes, politics, fail, lines give way,
substances mock and elude me.  Out of politics,
triumphs, battles, life, what at last finally remains?

Everyone loves videos, so here’s a behind the scenes look at the making of Caplan’s album:

This is one of my absolute favorite band pieces.  I’ve conducted it 3 times, including once at my wife’s request, and once again at my return to Dartmouth College with the CUWE in 2008.  In fact, hearing this piece as a freshman in the Dartmouth Wind Symphony under Max Culpepper in 1997 (along with Lincolnshire Posy and Holst’s First Suite – what a program!) probably started me down the road to becoming a band director.  So I’m in a little bit of shock that I haven’t written about it yet!  Time to fix that.

Kansas City native Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) was Broadway’s pre-eminent arranger and orchestrator for most of his career.  His ease with instruments enlivened the scores of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and many others.  He was composer in his own right, having studied with the renowned Parisian teacher Nadia Boulanger.  He wrote nearly 200 original pieces for several media, including two dozen works for wind band.  The best known of these are his Suite of Old American Dances and the Symphonic Songs for Band.

Bennett was inspired to write the Suite of Old American Dances in 1948 and 1949 after hearing a very special Goldman Band concert:

When Edwin Franko Goldman arrived at his 70th birthday it was celebrated by a concert sponsored by the League of Composers.  For the concert (January 3, 1948) the engaged the Goldman Band of New York and asked Dr. Goldman to conduct his own band in honor of his own anniversary.  Louise and I went to that concert and I suddenly thought of all the beautiful sounds the American concert band could make that it hadn’t yet made.  That doesn’t mean that the unmade sounds passed in review in my mind at all, but the sounds they made were so new to me after all my years with orchestra, dance bands and tiny “combos,” that my pen was practically jumping out of my pocket begging me to give this great big instrument some more music to play.

Thanks to Edward Higgins’s excellent full score edition of the piece for that quote (and all of the other Bennett quotes to follow).

Bennett came up with a five movement suite that he titled Electric Park, after an actual place in his native Kansas City where, as a youth, he heard all of the day’s popular dances (click here for pictures).  He called the park “a place of magic to us kids.  The tricks with big electric signs, the illuminated fountains, the big band concerts, the scenic railway and the big dance hall.  One could hear in the dance hall all afternoon and evening the pieces the crowd danced to.”  His publisher, presumably with marketing in mind, retitled the piece as Suite of Old American Dances.

The Cincinnati Wind Symphony performs the whole piece, all 5 movements:

Bennett’s source material was all real, living American dance of the day.  Let’s break it down one movement at a time.

The Cakewalk originated in Southern plantations as sort of a game for African-American slaves.  Dancers would do impressive-looking struts and kicks, often while dressed mockingly in the fashion of their white masters, and sometimes while also balancing something on their heads.  Often there would be a prize of a piece of cake, hence the term cakewalk.  Here’s what it looked like:

I love the beach scene at the end there!

Here’s a very genteel version of the Schottische, which is actually a German dance related to the polka:

The “Western One Step” is actually based on a dance called the Texas Tommy, which was probably a brothel dance (“Tommies” being women of the night, if you know what I mean).  Here we can see the dance, but you’ll have to imagine the sound:

The “Wallflower Waltz” is just a 20th century take on the classic Viennese waltz, which you can see here:

In the “Rag”, Bennett pushes the limits of his chosen 2/4 time, creating wild syncopations and 2-against-3 patterns, all in the spirit of ragtime music.  Here’s a simple example of a ragtime dance:

More info:

Robert Russell Bennett on wikipedia.

Robert Russell Bennett on IMDB.

Bennett bio on Naxos.com.

Broadway.com tribute to Bennett on the eve of the 2008 Tony Awards.

Google books preview of “The Broadway Sound”, Bennett’s autobiography and selected essays, edited by George Ferencz.

Suite of Old American Dances on wikia program notes, the Concord Band, and in full, 22-page analysis by David Goza of the University of Arkansas (worth the read!).

Suite of Old American Dances was the senior choice for librarian, piccolo/flute player, and love of my life Lisa Samols ’04.  We played it again that summer in Columbia Summer Winds.  We also played it at our exchange concerts with Dartmouth College in 2008.