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Our Transcendental Passion: The Legacy of a Movement


B. J. Lang founded Cecilia in 1876

Paul John Rudoi’s Our Transcendental Passion will debut on April 2ndat All Saints Parish in Brookline at 8pm and April 3rd at Umbrella Arts Center in Concord at 7pm. Acting as a truly American Passion, the concert-length choral work juxtaposes the rise, fall, and legacy of Transcendentalism with reimagined Sacred Harp tunes and original music. The libretto is available HERE and tickets HERE.

Conductor Michael Barrett of the commissioning chorus, the 145-yearold Boston Cecilia, has invited soloists Sophie Michaux, Carley DeFranco, Daniel Lugo, and Dana Whiteside and a chamber ensemble of piano trio, percussion, and Appalachian lap dulcimer.

I accept the universe!” – Margaret Fuller

At the heart of Margaret Fuller’s quote is the essence of a movement gone too soon from American discourse. Transcendentalism was never going to encapsulate all its well-meaning members hoped to achieve. The movement’s proud impracticality and the very intense opinions of its followers led to its dissolution, yet its fire remains alive with embers perpetually illuminating an “Ideal” for an evolving nation.

My intent with Our Transcendental Passion, my new concert-work commissioned for and by the Boston Cecilia, was to embody the movement’s hopes and dreams in a modern context, acknowledging its limitations but also celebrating its possibilities through a well-known musical format: the Passion.

This whole idea began in 2017 when I was a contract vocalist for the Oregon Bach Festival. At one of the Festival’s Discovery Series concerts–in which the conductor leads an extended pre-concert deconstruction of the work about to be performed–Matthew Halls, then Artistic Director of the festival, explained that there was no way for non-Germans to understand the depth of meaning in J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion. Beyond the religious connection, these works had cultural significance for German audiences because they used the melodies of Lutheran hymns, music any German would have heard and internalized. This sparked an idea in me for a truly American passion that would combine one of my favorite musical traditions, Sacred Harp music, with a passion narrative and form.

My initial search for the protagonist of such a work drove me in circles. I wanted to move the focus from Christ to an American religious figure of significance yet knowing that the goal of a passion is to highlight the rise, fall, and legacy of Christ, I couldn’t seem to find any one person whose life fit that narrative arc with that level of impact. After some time, I broadened my search to non-religious figures who helped guide American values and was struck by the fact that many figures I found so far had Transcendentalism in common. Not only that, but the origins of Sacred Harp came from New England around the time of the Transcendentalists. This series of realizations led me to the most important one of all; the passion narrative didn’t need to follow any one person but could instead follow a movement itself that transcended its members to make an indelible impact on our lives.

Once Transcendentalism came into focus as the “hero figure” of the passion, I knew I needed to connect as many members as possible to show its true breadth. I dove headfirst into Philip F. Gura’s wonderful survey American Transcendentalism: A History and sought out other experts like the brilliant Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer Megan Marshall for further insight. I made massive lists of quotes from these and other sources, a document full of links to Transcendental poetry, and a renewed set of tabs in my own copy of the Sacred Harp. As I built this composite text libretto, I kept in mind how musical passions are constructed, with considerations on which movements could be Chorales vs Arias, which could move the narrative forward or comment on the moment, and more, all the while keeping a birds-eye view of Transcendentalism’s overall trajectory.

These considerations led to important decisions:

  • While choral music rarely employs communal spoken material, here was a wealth of quotes from dozens of great orators. I decided, then, that many of these movements would include spoken quotes between general figures with a backdrop of spoken responses from the choir, as if all are hearing and responding to debates.
  • In a more traditional context, with so many figures to include, the soloists act very much as they would in a traditional Oratorio with quotes from many sources rather than as the voice of one particular person. That said, it was also possible to temporarily fix a particular leader to a voice part, as was the case for the second section’s arias (see macro-form explanation below).
  • The Chorus–like those of Bach’s passions–both comments on and is part of the narrative. It serves as the broader public pushing against these new Transcendentalists, later being convinced of their ideals’ value, and ultimately affected by the movement’s dissolution, all the while regularly resurfacing to the present to remind the audience of our connection to their work.

When writing the music, I needed to be sure I covered the rise, fall, and legacy in a way that both celebrated the past and reflected the present. This led to a unique look at the traditional passion form’s three narrative components.

  • The first part, titled “Build Your Own World,” stems from the early Transcendentalist debates which honed their awakening as a movement, with many choruses and, as in the fifth movement, various leaders weaving a loose common thread. Ending this part with a Chorale on a poem which begins “Thought is deeper than all speech” and ends “melting, flowing, into one” seemed fitting for a group of passionate ideas resonating together as a call for change.
  • The second part, titled “I Accept the Universe,” builds on this uneasy foundation with arias from four leaders, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and most importantly, Margaret Fuller. While certainly not the only leaders of the movement, these four were considered some of the most crucial, which made Fuller’s untimely death at age 40 all the more heart wrenching. She died in a shipwreck during an overwhelming storm in 1850, the same year the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed. Thus the final section of the Passion brings the tidal wave of Abolition into clear view.
  • The final part, titled “The Wave Washes All Alike,” shows the realities of this newfound focus. The Passion’s crisis movements slam quotes from the Act against quotes from fearful Transcendentalists, as if they too, see, their ideals’ untimely demise at the hands of a more important shift. The final movements also bring a return to unity in grief, with Chorales interspersed between crises and eulogies for individuals and, ultimately, for the movement itself. Yet as with the Christ narrative, all is not lost, and the ideals shine through the wreckage with an unknown sense of their gravity in a new age.

I included well-known tunes as well as those few would know in this modern time. I combined quotes many may have heard alongside figures very few may remember. I wrote original classical music alongside arrangements of the early American music from the Sacred Harp, not to make a comment on the Transcendentalists’ musical interests or to contrast their values–in my mind all good music is equally important and valuable–but to acknowledge the American-ness of these seemingly disparate elements finding common ground. While I follow in the footsteps of other wonderful composers who have created Passions, my primary concern and hope is to support the Transcendental narrative.

Paul John Rudoi

After years researching Transcendentalists, complete with two years of delays for the premiere, I am humbled by the relevance of their ideals. Today, over 150 years after the Civil War, over 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, over 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, every single one of the Transcendentalists’ core questions remains timely. Fuller’s genders continue to evolve as we consider the reality of gender fluidity. Emerson’s Self is at stake as the internet age makes it even more difficult to learn through socialization. That internet, and the technology that comes with it, pulls us away from Thoreau’s beautiful nature around us. Without Peabody’s equal-access education, systemic inequalities prevail. And just like the Transcendentalists before us, all these and other timely issues continue to be shrouded by yet another tidal wave, this time of environmental catastrophe.

The lesson learned from this, above all, is that we must continue attempting to be better. I chose the title of Our Transcendental Passion intentionally with a first-person plural possessive leading the way. We, together, must actively possess our choice to make change in our world. I know that by writing this Passion with a new generation of Americans in mind, I am tying my own principles to their ideals as well. I hope to look back on this choice and find the music, and my actions, do it justice.

Paul John Rudoi is an award-winning composer, conductor, tenor vocalist, and arts entrepreneur.

Our Transcendental Passion – World Premiere
Saturday, April 2nd at 8:00 PM All Saints Parish
1773 Beacon Street

Sunday, April 3rd at 7:00 PM
The Umbrella Arts Center
40 Stow Street

Michael Barrett, conductor; Sophie Michaux, Carley deFranco, Daniel Lugo, Dana Whiteside, soloists

Commissioned by the Boston Cecilia, Minnesota composer Paul John Rudoi has composed Our Transcendental Passion, a concert-length work for chorus, soli, piano trio, percussion, and Appalachian dulcimer. The libretto is based on the words of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as those of lesser known and marginalized voices, Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.

Just as Bach’s Passions allowed German audiences to remember their Lutheran heritage, this work will give American audiences the chance to consider Sacred Harp as a bedrock of musical material in connection with a movement that was at once spiritual and secular, historical and philosophical, personal and universal.

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