Composer Neely Bruce’s elevated purpose in writing The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets was to devise a musical mnemonic to remind Americans of the importance of our founders’ gift to us. Though lofty indeed in their ideals, the texts of The Bill of Rights are hardly as dramatic as the Constitution’s preamble or the Declaration of Independence or as burnished and emotionally laden as the Gettysburg Address. Bruce was faced with a text utterly lacking in lyric potential: How does one set music to phrases such as “In suits of law where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars…”?
As a member of local shape-note singing groups and a frequent contributor of new works to The Sacred Harp, Bruce has been drawn to the compositional language of the early-American William Billings (1746-1800). The eight motets were sung yesterday by a chorus of 48 with an accompaniment provided by eight instrumentalists: string quartet with contrabass, flute, oboe, and harpsichord. In Faneuil Hall’s appropriate space, resonant both acoustically and historically, the large community chorus evoked both a 19th–century Fourth of July picnic and a Puritan singing school, and was even a bit Handelian. Billings would not have been confused by anything he might have heard on Sunday afternoon. Everything was in F Major or the relative D Minor, and there were anthems, fuguing tunes, dirges, and near-marches that would not have been out of place in the earlier composer’s time, though Bruce’s accompaniments advanced somewhat over those of his forbear, sometimes merely doubling, but often embellishing the choral lines.
The word setting also reminded me of Randall Thompson, especially his Testament of Freedom, which opens with a recurring instrumental motto based on Thomas Jefferson’s name. Thompson had a significant advantage over Bruce, though, in having Jefferson’s words; “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” is a much better opening stanza than “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”
Bruce was especially pleased to hear me compare his work to Thompson’s because of a wonderful historic parallel: The University of Virginia, whose original campus is Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece, commissioned Testament of Freedom in 1941 for performance on the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth. Fifty or so years later, in 1993, for the occasion of the 250th anniversary of his birth, Bruce received a commission from the University of Virginia for a memorial piece. His composition for male chorus, Young T. J., was heard at Monticello, the Jefferson Memorial (with President and Mrs. Clinton in attendance), at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, and also broadcast on the NBC Today show, NPR’s Performance Today.
Yesterday’s performance by the enthusiastic Festival Harmony chorus and instrumental ensemble provided the requisite weight and color for underlining the framers’ ideals, but tidier fugal entrances might have helped the chorus get the words across. And the distractions from the nearby hip-hop band and the relentless screaming brat in the audience often competed for the spotlight. But then again, those distractions went straight to the texts and left one wondering when the right to quiet enjoyment trumps freedom of assembly and speech.
Any of Bruce’s eight motets, perhaps with better texts, would have been effective in a worship service or as individual choral selections. There was some dramatic examples of word setting such as for “… things to be seized.” In amendment eight, “Excessive bail shall not be required nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” Bruce wittily used Billingsesque dissonances to simulate cruel punishment. The final cadence on “… to the people.” ended with a dramatic high C.
But I’m sorry to have to report that much of the music, pleasant and fine as it was, seemed arbitrary. Many of Bruce’s choices in depicting various passages from the text with dirges, fugues, or ditties seemed hard to parse. The plan of presenting each amendment with a prelude and postlude certainly gave a stateliness to the undertaking, but I can’t help closing with the observation that it was to no real cumulative effect.