Music that doesn't suck, No. 49: Playing catchup...
Wow… I have dropped the blog ball these past couple weeks — sorry about that! Time to play catchup. Today is a twofer, as we’ve recently passed a couple of notable holidays: June 14th was Flag Day, and June 19th, AKA Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day was recently inaugurated as a federal holiday! Lucky for you, I’ve got some Music That Doesn’t Suck for each one of those :) My band nerd friends are going to love this one….
Flag Day is exactly what it sounds like. It dates all the way back to 1777 and the adoption of the stars & stripes as the official flag of the Unites States of America, although it wasn’t officially recognized as “Flag Day” until 1916 in a proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson. For Flag Day, we actually have a piece by an English composer! Gordon Jacob was a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and is best known in the band world for his William Byrd Suite, Original Suite, Music for a Festival, and Old Wine in New Bottles. In 1953 and ’54, Jacob composed an overture entitled “Flag of Star: Salute to America.” Jacob provided his own program note for the piece…
"The overture was written during the end of 1953 and the beginning of 1954 and is intended as a gesture from an inhabitant of the Old World to those of the New.
The introductory fanfare and the slow section which follows it recalls the sacrifices made by your country in both world wars in the struggle with dark forces of destruction. The allegro is prompted by thoughts of the energy, vitality, and cheerfulness of the American people - young, optimistic, and full of their faith in their destiny. The second subject in 3/4 time might perhaps suggest a sort of national song and right at the end there is a brief quotation from the "Star Spangled Banner." But apart from any extra-musical meaning the work is constructed solidly on classical formal lines though its musical language is that of the 20th century (though not of an extreme type).”
The performance features the University of North Texas Wind Symphony, led by Eugene Corporon.
Juneteenth dates back to 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom for slaves in the state of Texas, the last Confederate state to practice such barbarism. Juneteenth was not recognized as a federal holiday until this year (2021), when it was signed into law by President Joe Biden. For this, I am happy to feature a black, contemporary composer whose music has only become known to me in the past couple years — Omar Thomas. Thomas is a composition professor (and fellow Crossfitter!) at the University of Texas. Most of his works are for wind band (or at least the ones with which I am most familiar), although the orchestral version of today’s piece was recently premiered by the Colorado Symphony. “Of Our New Day Begun” was composed in 2015, and Thomas has written his own extended program note for the piece. The performance features the 2020 Texas All-State Symphonic Band, conducted by the composer Frank Ticheli. Enjoy!
“Of Our New Day Begun” was written to honor nine beautiful souls who lost their lives to a callous act of hatred and domestic terrorism on the evening of June 17, 2015 while worshipping in their beloved sanctuary, the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (affectionately referred to as “Mother Emanuel”) in Charleston, South Carolina. My greatest challenge in creating this work was walking the line between reverence for the victims and their families, and honoring my strong, bitter feelings towards both the perpetrator and the segments of our society that continue to create people like him. I realized that the most powerful musical expression I could offer incorporated elements from both sides of that line - embracing my pain and anger while being moved by the displays of grace and forgiveness demonstrated by the victims’ families.
Historically, black Americans have, in great number, turned to the church to find refuge and grounding in the most trying of times. Thus, the musical themes and ideas for “Of Our New Day Begun” are rooted in the Black American church tradition. The piece is anchored by James and John Johnson’s time-honored song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (known endearingly as the “Negro National Anthem”), and peppered with blues harmonies and melodies. Singing, stomping, and clapping are also prominent features of this work, as they have always been a mainstay of black music traditions, and the inclusion of the tambourine in these sections is a direct nod to black worship services.
“Of Our New Day Begun” begins with a unison statement of a melodic cell from “Lift Every Voice….” before suddenly giving way to ghostly, bluesy chords in the horns and bassoons. This section moves to a dolorous and bitter dirge presentation of the anthem in irregularly shifting 12/8 and 6/8 meter, which grows in intensity as it offers fleeting glimmers of hope and relief answered by cries of blues-inspired licks. A maddening, ostinato-driven section representing a frustration and weariness that words cannot, grows into a group singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” fueled by the stomping and clapping reminiscent of the black church.
In the latter half of the piece the music turns hopeful, settling into 9/8 time and modulating up a step during its ascent to a glorious statement of the final lines of “Lift Every Voice….” in 4/4, honoring the powerful display of humanity set forth by the families of the victims. There is a long and emotional decrescendo that lands on a pensive and cathartic gospel-inspired hymnsong. Returning to 9/8 time, the piece comes to rest on a unison F that grows from a very distant hum to a thunderous roar, driven forward by march-like stomping to represent the ceaseless marching of black Americans towards equality.”