In celebration of the Chorus America conference in Boston, the Handel and Haydn Society’s bicentennial celebration concludes Thursday evening at Symphony Hall with Handel+Haydn Sings, a choral program comprising soaring selections from four centuries. Featured are works of Handel including Messiah part III, Palestrina, MacMillan, Bach, and Pärt. The world premiere is a setting of R.W. Emerson’s Emancipation poem Boston Hymn by award-winning American composer Gabriela Lena Frank (b.1972), entitled My Angel, His Name Is Freedom. (See end for program details.)
Delivered January 1st 1863 and published in the Atlantic the next month, Boston Hymn is a stirring piece of work whose mighty language and sentiment are capable of reverberation and resonance today at the 150th anniversary year of the Appomattox surrender concluding the Civil War.
BMInt recently spoke with Frank about it all.
“In looking at Emerson’s Boston Hymn, an example of Transcendentalist poetry at its best,” says Frank, currently composer in residence for the Houston and Detroit Symphonies, “my composer’s eye found attractive its lofty calls for freedom and self-determination. My challenge has been how to capture in sound something that I find so essentially American—the idea that an ordinary existence can be tied to extraordinary aspirations.” Before the performance, Thursday at 7:30pm, philanthropist David Rockefeller Jr. will recite the complete Emerson poem from which My Angel, His Name Is Freedom draws its text.
Frank’s piece is the latest in a distinguished lineage of H+H premieres reaching back two centuries. In the 1800s the organization gave the American premieres of Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and Haydn’s Creation, and more recently commissioned new pieces by Daniel Pinkham, Randall Thompson, and John Tavener.
Here’s the beginning and end of what Frank set:
The word of the Lord
by night, by the seaside :
I am tired of kings.
I suffer them no more,
tyrants great and tyrants small.
Make just laws under the sun.
Beware from right to swerve.
Carry my purpose forth
which neither halts nor shakes.
Lift up a people from the dust.
Trump of their rescue, sound!”
My will fulfilled shall be.
My thunderbolt has eyes to see
his way home to the mark.
FLE: Emerson’s poem has very intense feelings about slavery, inequality, the Civil War. Did you start out with this poem, was it assigned to you, or is it a poem you’ve known?
GLF: When I was first approached about this project, the Handel and Haydn society had a particular wish to set this hymn. I had read it in school many years ago, so I remembered what it was about, but I had never looked at it with a composer’s eye, which is completely different.
Where were you in school at the time?
GLF: Berkeley high school; I was a teenager.
Your bio says that you’re Peruvian, Jewish….
GLF: I was born in Berkeley California in the early ’70s, and that’s where I grew up. My father is where I get my Jewish heritage from; he’s from the Bronx, and he was a Peace Corps volunteer in the ’60s stationed in Peru, where he met my mother.
How did you end up in California?
GLF: My father was a graduate student at Berkeley in English with a specialty in American literature, and he went on to take a job at UC-Berkeley with a scholarly/editorial department and worked as an editor on Mark Twain. He still works, goes in a couple days a week to the offices at Cal, semiretired, so the family home is still at Berkeley.
When Handel and Haydn assigned this piece to you, you knew it was for a 26-voice choir and chamber orchestra, but were you familiar with the sound they make and their approach to musicmaking?
GLF: They have an absolutely incredible reputation; I always knew who they were. And I should say they never assigned the poem, they just suggested or requested it, and it was up to me to take their suggestion or suggest something else. This is part of the normal negotiation of composer and organization: you usually decide on something that’s agreeable. I don’t want to sound like they were not open minded to other kinds of settings that celebrated American culture, but this certainly worked. They did explain before I had even heard any recordings or anything like that that they were a certain kind of choir, their string players played in a different kind of way, and did I find it interesting or challenging? I love working with new forces. I think it’s absolutely imperative to challenge yourself as an artist, and once you get going it’s very easy for your ideas and methods to become stagnant, and that is the kiss of artistic death. So I was familiar with the fact that this would be going into new territory for me.
New territory in that you’ve never written for a group that’s mainly an early-music group, is that what was new?
So do you feel that you have been restrained by this or liberated or a little of both?
GLF: Not restrained at all. When I was younger, every time I took on something new, it would be quite scary, and I like the element of the unknown now. But restrained is not the word.
The chorus is small; how many parts are there in your choral in this piece
GLF: It’s SSAATTBB, and they are never doubled by an instrument, but are playing along; they have complementary but not doubling parts.
There are a lot of independent lines even though it’s small forces in the choir and a small chamber orchestra—there’s a lot going on?
GLF: But there’s some counterpoint, and a lot of parts where they’re singing as a block, but not unison; they’re singing harmonies that are moving together. So it’s going to be a mix of different things, but in part of it there’s not necessarily a lot going on, and other times there is. It really depends on what part of the hymn that I’m starting.
Does it sound like early music at all, or is it unmistakably modern?
GLF: It’s a little bit of both, and that was intentional. This is a commission for a living composer. I was very much cognizant that they picked somebody like me as an embodiment of their heritage yet looking toward the future. So for a piece like this, that is commemorative, you do want to hearken back to some traditions, but you also have to have a nice balance of something new. So it’s a more considered kind of project in that way.
But you’re not quoting early hymn tunes or patriotic tunes?
GLF: No, not at all. It’s completely original.
Are you setting all 21 verses of the poem?
GLF: No. That was one of the other requests, that I would not set the entire thing. And as a result, taking out any of the verses, because the hymn flows in a rather linear way, renders other verses somewhat nonsensical. It’s not so much a matter of simply setting verse 6 or verse 8 in its entirety. Rather, I isolated lines from different verses and put them together into a poem and it was, remarkably, not that difficult to do, because Emerson has some powerful lines in there in defiance of unearned authority, obviously of a monarch, and those could be glued together as if it was a small poem. Sort of shaved material of the verses; I used that.
Do you want the words to really get across? Are you going to depend on a printed text in order to make it clear?
GLF: I think that that was the last thing; you would like the words to come across both with and without a text. And I don’t mean to be facetious when I say that. Of course you want the words to be intelligible if somebody arrived to the concert late and was not able to get a program. But for those who do like to follow along, sometimes when you follow along you’re too much in your head and you’re not letting the words pick you up. It’s a careful balance, and I would like the music to work always both ways for any vocal piece that I write. I have the situation when I write in Spanish and somebody doesn’t have the translation, can they still get the sense that something exciting is happening or something tragic is happening just from the power of the sound and the expression on the singer’s faces. The music has to communicate no matter what the level of understanding is with the words.