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The ‘Boston Hymn’ in Washington


Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Washington DC—Ralph Waldo Emerson enjoyed concerts by the Handel and Haydn Society and deeply admired both composers. Last June the H+H Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus at Symphony Hall reciprocated, with a new setting of the Transcendentalist’s Boston Hymn, Harry Christophers leading the finale of the Society’s ambitious bicentennial season (article here). Last Saturday, Christophers and a scaled-back H+H ensemble performed the Hymn again, this time at the Library of Congress’s intimate 500-seat Coolidge Auditorium, in Washington DC.

Award-winning composer-in-residence for both the Houston and the Detroit Symphony Orchestras, Gabriela Lena Frank was commissioned by H+H and the Carolyn Royall Just Fund of the Library to arrange Emerson’s poem for chorus and chamber ensemble. Last June’s world premiere of the result, her My Angel, his name is freedom, was the centerpiece of a Symphony Hall program titled Handel+Haydn Sings. Works by Handel, Samuel Webbe, Gwyneth Walker, Palestrina, James MacMillan, and Bach opened the evening, and after intermission David Rockefeller Jr. read the Boston Hymn, followed by Frank’s 12-minute setting of selected text from it, and The Deer’s Cry by Arvo Pärt. Part the Third from Messiah concluded the program.

The Saturday evening program differed. It opened with the anonymous plainsong Veni creator spiritus, followed by Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis (also performed in the bicentennial concert at King’s Chapel last November), Purcell, selections from The Old Colony Collection of 1823 (three of which, by James Kent, Mozart, and Thomas Linley, were sung at King’s too), Bach, Frank’s My Angel, two more pieces by Byrd and one more each by Purcell and Bach. The Washington premiere of My Angel remained the center of attention.

Emerson composed the poem at the urging of his friend the music critic John Sullivan Dwight, to open the Grand Jubilee Concert celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation, at the Music Hall on New Year’s Day 1863. Ticket proceeds, the broadside declared, would benefit freed slaves. The 29 listed supporters of the event were prominent abolitionists and civic and cultural luminaries including Longfellow, former mayor Josiah Quincy Jr., Edward Everett Hale, Francis Parkman, James T. Fields, author and businessman Samuel Gray Ward, Emerson, John Murray Forbes (railroad magnate, abolitionist, future father-in-law to Emerson’s younger daughter Edith), Charles Eliot Norton, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Dwight, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Emerson opened the event by reading what became known as Boston Hymn, a morally elevated, piercing denunciation of all tyrants in which the voice of God declares, “I am tired of kings.” The Lord calls “watching Pilgrims” to throw off oppression by finding divine strength within: “My angel,—his name is Freedom,— / Choose him to be your king.” The poem ends with God’s mighty promise:

My will fulfilled shall be,
For, in daylight or in dark,
My thunderbolt has eyes to see
His way home to the mark.

As Emerson finished, the audience, including former slaves, stood cheering and singing. The rest of the program featured Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Holmes’s Army Hymn, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” Rossini’s William Tell Overture. At the podium leading the Grand Philharmonic Orchestra was Carl Zerrahn, longtime H+H conductor (1854-1895, 1897).

Gabriela Lena Frank describes Boston Hymn as “a poetic sermon … on attaining freedom from false masters.” She read it in high school, finding it “an example of Transcendentalist poetry at its best.” “[M]y composer’s eye already finds attractive its lofty calls for freedom and self-determination welded to specific, even humble, imagery familiar to the farmers who built our nation. My challenge will be how to capture something that I find so essentially American—that an ordinary existence can be tied to extraordinary aspirations—in sound.” She succeeded, said critics. The Globe’s Jeremy Eichler wrote, “The music is taut and involving, with angular lines and pungent, darkly colored harmonies . . . . Frank’s writing for the chorus . . . is clear and effective, with certain words repeated for emphasis.” The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette declared, “This attractive piece marries hints of a simple folk sensibility with a sophisticated sense of musical structure to create something bluntly imposing, trumpeting out a text by Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

Trained at Rice and Michigan, Frank acknowledges a range of musical influences (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich) but especially finding Bartok, Britten, and Chou Wen Chung “the truest kindred spirits in terms of how my polyglot background [Peruvian, Jewish, and Chinese] informs my work.” When H+H approached her about commissioning a work, she told Lee Eiseman, “they never assigned the poem, they just suggested or requested it.” But she found both “Boston Hymn” and the nature of H+H amenable and challenging. She did not set the entire Emerson poem; “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 . . . and those could be glued together as if it was a small poem.” Frank notes that “you would like the words to come across both with and without a text. …[S]ometimes 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. …The music has to communicate no matter what the level of understanding is with the words.”

That balance was beautifully achieved in the premiere, Frank explained in email:

H+H’s stunning performance of My Angel quite literally took my breath away. When asked at the last working rehearsal for my final thoughts on the group’s efforts, I melted and exclaimed, “Ohhhh . . . I love it so much . . . And hope you do, too!” I was embarrassed that I had lost my composure, but there was an audible titter of approval running through the singers and instrumentalists. Honestly, it’s experiences like these that make me realize how much I love my job.

Frank’s My Angel, his name is freedom joins a distinguished H+H tradition. In the 19th century, the Society presented the American premieres of Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, Verdi’s Requiem, and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In 1823 H+H tried, unsuccessfully, to contract Beethoven to compose a grand oratorio. In the past half-century it has commissioned works by Randall Thompson, Daniel Pinkham, and John Tavener.

Artistic Director Harry Christophers leads Boston's Handel and Haydn Society on tour at the Library of Congress in Washington. (Hannah Grube photo)
Artistic Director Harry Christophers leads Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society on tour at the Library of Congress in Washington. (Hannah Grube photo)
Wes Mott, professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has written for BMInt on the New England Transcendentalists’ view of Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Creation. He wishes to thank H+H public relations and communications manager Benjamin Pesetsky and marketing manager Brandon Milardo for kindly providing essential information and the photographs; and Professor Derek Pacheco of Purdue University for permission to reprint material appearing in the Spring 2016 issue of Emerson Society Papers.

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