Today, June 19th, is Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. So on this program, we're also going to celebrate freedom by looking at liberated music in a show we're calling "Songs Of Freedom." Check out our playlist below:
- Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Black, Brown, & Beige - Duke Ellington's 1943 suite Black, Brown, and Beige, a 45-minute piece chronicling the history of Black America from slavery to freedom, was his most ambitious work. It isn't a tone poem, but rather what Ellington called "A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America." It was originally conceived as a five-movement work titled Boola, organized chronologically into Africa, Slaveship, Plantation, Harlem, and a finale. This eventually became Black, Brown & Beige, and central to the work was Ellington's new spiritual called "Come Sunday." When Ellington revived the work in 1958, lyrics were added to "Come Sunday" and it was performed in the suite by gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson. "Come Sunday" was also part of a later project of the Duke's called My People, an album he released in 1963 that celebrated the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Fidelio - Beethoven's one and only opera Fidelio is a story about imprisonment and liberation. It's about a prisoner named Florestan, who's been wrongly imprisoned by Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison and Florestan's political rival. Pizzaro has sent out rumors that Florestan is dead, but in reality, he's being starved to death in a prison cell. Florestan's wife Leonore suspects the truth, and infiltrates the prison as a guard named Fidelio. When word of Pizarro's cruelty reaches a minister of the King, Pizarro orders that Florestan be killed. Just before the execution takes place, Leonore (as Fidelio) protects her husband, at the same time that the minister arrives to punish Pizarro. The opera and its story of liberation is often performed in real-life prisons today. Fidelio was originally called Leonore before Beethoven renamed it. However, Beethoven wrote several versions of the overture using this original title.
- Gabriel Fauré (1825-1924), Requiem, "Libera me" - We've looked at freedom from slavery and freedom from imprisonment, but this piece is about freedom from God's wrath and judgment. "Libera me" is a section of the Requiem-the Roman Catholic mass of the dead-that asks for God's mercy from eternal death. Gabriel Fauré set the "Libera me" to music as an independent work in 1877, but it ultimately became part of his Requiem in 1888. Before Fauré served as the director of the Paris Conservatoire, he was the church organist at a church in Paris known as "La Madeleine," the same church that employed Camille Saint-Saens a few decades earlier. That's where this work premiered. La Madeleine was originally a temple designed for Napoleon's Grand Armée, but later converted into a church during the Bourbon Restoration. Fauré's Requiem was performed there again in 1924 at Fauré's own funeral.
- Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Lincoln Portrait - The "Great Emancipator" Abraham Lincoln is the subject of this work by Aaron Copland… although it was almost about a less-notable 19th-century abolitionist figure, poet Walt Whitman. The work was commissioned by conductor Andre Kostelanetz to be a musical portrait of a great American. Whitman was Copland's first choice, but he was encouraged to choose a political figure instead. So Copland settled on Lincoln and thus Lincoln Portrait was born. Written for a full symphony orchestra and a narrator, Copland uses materials from Lincoln's letters and other historical documents in the work. Lincoln Portrait includes parts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where he describes slavery as a wrongheaded, tyrannical principle, akin to, quote "a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor."
- Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Nabucco, Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves ("Va pensiero") - Based on the Book of Jeremiah, Verdi's Nabucco is the opera that put the composer on the map. The title character Nabucco is better known by his English name Nebuchadnezzar, the proud Babylonian king who first loses and then regains his sanity. Verdi plays fast and loose with the biblical details in the opera's plot, so it ends up being more of a Romantic story than literal scripture. The star at the opera's premiere was not Nabucco, but rather the chorus of the Hebrew slaves who sing this song "Va pensiero." In this movement, the chorus about steadfastly keeps the faith, as they dream of regaining their homeland. This dream of freedom and sovereignty rang true with the contemporary Italian audiences in 1842. This was the time of the Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement where citizens of the peninsula hoped to unify the various city-states into one sovereign Italian homeland.
- Randall Thompson (1899-1984), The Testament of Freedom - Randall Thompson is a choral composer whose works like Alleluia and Frostiana are still popular today. The Testament of Freedom was written in 1943 while Thompson was a professor at the University of Virginia for the bicentennial of the university's founder Thomas Jefferson. All the words are from Jefferson's writings on freedom, which he wrote at a time of war. This was especially poignant in 1943, when the U.S. was embroiled in a new conflict, World War II. The Testament of Freedom was even performed at the funeral for Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. Today, Thomas Jefferson is seen as a complicated figure when it comes to issues of liberty. Although he was the author of the Declaration of Independence-a document which states that "all men are created equal" and that they are endowed with the unalienable right of liberty-Jefferson was also a slave owner.
- Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins (1849-1908) - Blind Tom was one of the few slaves who achieved (a sort of) freedom through music, but his freedom was far from what we'd consider to be "free." Blind from birth and likely mentally impaired, Thomas Wiggins was bought as an infant by Georgia slave owner General James Neil Bethune in 1849. His prodigious talent was recognized early on, and Blind Tom became a national sensation. He performed at the White House for President James Buchanan in 1860, and worked in a traveling P.T. Barnum-type show showcasing his amazing piano skills, although often being promoted through cruel racial stereotypes. He wrote original music and could recall thousands of songs from memory. Blind Tom's talent was so great, that he ended up becoming the highest paid pianist of the 19th-century. However, much of that money went to the Bethune family. Despite his 19th century fame, Blind Tom's legacy had eroded by the 20th century, and he was buried in an unmarked grave.
- Barbara Harbach (b. 1946), Freedom Suite - Composer Barbara Harbach's work Freedom Suite is a relatively new piece (it premiered in 2011) and was inspired by the life of Dred Scott and his family members Harriet, Eliza, and Lizzie. Scott, if you recall from your high school history classes, was a slave who was brought into Illinois, a free state. When the man who bought him died, Scott tried to buy freedom for himself and his family. When he was denied, Scott sued the federal government. In the famous Dred Scott case from 1857, the Supreme Court ruled against him, saying he wasn't a citizen and had no right to even sue the government. The results of the Dred Scott case was just one spark that help ignite the beginning of the Civil War. The final movement of Harbach's work called "Freedom - At Last" is the celebration of the freedom that slaves finally achieved in 1865-the event celebrated every year on June 19th.
- Bob Marley (1945-1981), "Redemption Song" - Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" was written and released in 1980, at the same time Marley retired from performing after being diagnosed with cancer. It's unlike any of his other songs. Rather than a reggae-inspired anthem, "Redemption Song" is a soft, slow acoustic ballad in the style of Bob Dylan. There's a line in the song that goes "emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind." These words are taken from a speech by Marcus Garvey, the early 20th century African-American activist in the U.S. and Jamaica. Garvey's argument was that although Jamaicans were free in body, they were not fully in control of their own destiny. He argued against civil rights, and instead stated that all African-Americans should return to their homeland of Africa. Garvey's teaching ultimately inspired the founding of Rastafarianism, a Jamaican-based religion that Bob Marley practiced.