Civil-Civility for Chamber Orchestra
II. Gift of Mystery
III. Memories of Our Lives
V. Light of Truth
VI. Ain’t I a Woman
Civil-Civility (2016) depicts the acts and writings of courageous women who defied all odds to help women and humanity. Women have historically struggled to achieve their rights in patriarchal societies even from the time of 9th-century Kassia, born in Constantinople into a wealthy family. She refused to accept the dictums for feminine behavior and therefore founded a convent. The chamber ensemble piece, Civil/Civility, continues the resistance by highlighting six women who made a difference in their lifetimes despite prejudice, ignorance, arrogance, and chauvinism, all were quintessential role models.
Written in six movements, the various ensembles capture the spirits of these intrepid women and create musical portraits.
Sentiments – Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815 – 1902) was an American suffragist, social activist, abolitionist, and leading figure of the early women’s rights movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton held the famous Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848. At this meeting, the attendees drew up its “Declaration of Sentiments” and took the lead in proposing that women be granted the right to vote. The melody passes from one instrument to another in equality to ensure that We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal. Perhaps fighting for equal rights produces unexpected allies and unusual sentiments among the participating instruments in the string orchestra.
Gift of Mystery – Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962) is revered as a political figure, diplomat and activist. She was the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, and even campaigned and gave speeches for her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was also influential in pressing the United States to join and support the United Nations and became its first delegate. Serving as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, she also was involved in drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor was outspoken, especially about civil rights for African-Americans and Asian Americans, as well as advocating for expanding the roles of women in the workplace, and the rights of World War II refugees. In her obituary, the New York Times called her “the object of almost universal respect” and President Harry S. Truman called her “First Lady of the world” paying tribute to her human rights achievements. She received 35 honorary degrees during her life.
Her many quotations often allude to increasing one’s own self-esteem, “You must do the things you think you cannot do,” and “I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.” Her advocacy of others was to instill in them that No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Gift of Mystery is a wordless vocalese for soprano, violin, and piano. Often when a woman speaks, her words go unheeded. Perhaps a wordless movement gives more prescience than if words are used. Certainly, in the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, her words did not go unheard.
Memories of Our Lives – Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005) is known nationally as the “mother of the modern-day civil rights movement” in America. She refused to surrender her seat to a white male passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, December 1, 1955. This resistance ignited a wave of protest December 5, 1955 that resonated throughout the United States. Her quiet brave and fearless decision changed America, its view of black people and re-charted the course of history. This movement for string orchestra with two cello parts is a loosely defined passacaglia and based on the hymn tune, O Sacred Head Now Wounded by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-16112). The words that inspired Harbach were Rosa Parks’ words, “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” In Memories of Our Lives, there are twelve complete variations of the eight-measure passacaglia theme, with the thirteenth only a partial statement of the theme.
Committed – Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978) was an American anthropologist, author, and speaker in the 1960s and 1970s. Her topics and writings were often controversial as she related the attitudes towards sex in the South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures. As a proponent of expanding sexual conventions within the concept of the more traditional Western religious life, her writings and lectures encouraged the 1960s sexual revolution. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, posthumously in 1979. “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” and “We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment.” Perhaps her commitment to changing the world begins with, Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.
In Committed Harbach was inspired to write a two-part piece for string orchestra with flute and piano. The first part is newly composed and projects the feeling of Peace, while the second portion is based on the German chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (In Peace and Joy I Now Depart) and projects Joy. The chorale was written by Martin Luther (1483-1546).
Light of Truth – Ida Wells-Barnett (1862 – 1931) was a former slave who became a journalist and launched a virtual one-woman crusade against the vicious practice of lynching. Historians consider her the most famous black woman in the United States during her lifetime. Looking for truth through kaleidoscopic key changes, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Light of Truth is a set of variations for string orchestra, and perhaps the variations could be interpreted as searching for truth. The slight tango feel that begins in variation five is usually expressed by the viola. All instruments enjoy tossing the melodies back and forth.
Ain’t I a Woman – Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883) was born into slavery and became an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. In 1828 she went to court to regain custody of her son, and she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. She changed her name from Isabella Baumfree in 1843 after she believed that God called her to go into the countryside and preach about the abolition of slavery. Her famous speech, delivered extemporaneously in 1851, became known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” Later she helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. Sojourner was included in Smithsonian magazine’s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All time” in 2014.
And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Those are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters, and which they see as they look up to them, though they are ever so far away from us, and each other. I am not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.
Written for soprano, piano, and chamber string orchestra, the short introduction opens with a dramatic and declamatory statement “And ain’t I a Woman?” At the end of the piece, she contemplates the celestial, and begins to assert her strength and independence, “I’m not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.” This is a musical tribute to the strength and courage of Sojourner Truth and all the women, who each in their own way, exhibit boundless courage and fortitude against sometimes unseemly odds.