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Christopher Wilkins’ Summer Blog- O’er the Land of the Free

August 25, 2014

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s final concert of the summer at the DCR’s Hatch Shell will take place on Wednesday, August 27 at 7 PM. The program celebrates the bicentennial of The Star-Spangled Banner. Here are a few words from Music Director Christopher Wilkins.



This summer the Landmarks Orchestra has featured music by four American composers active at the turn of the last century: Dudley Buck (b. 1839), Edward MacDowell (b. 1860), Charles Ives (b. 1874), and R. Nathaniel Dett (b. 1882). All made important contributions to American art song, choral literature, and music for organ. They are among the most prominent figures of their time, and they all had a significant impact on the musical life of Boston.All but Ives lived here.

Dudley Buck’s first great success came with his Festival Hymn “Peace and Music,” composed for the World’s Peace Jubilee in the Back Bay in 1872. Famed bandmaster Patrick Gilmore commissioned the work and conducted it. Four years later, Gilmore commissioned another work by Buck for a 4th of July celebration, his Festival Overture on the American National Air. Buck chose to use The Star-Spangled Banner as a secondary theme in his overture, though the song would not become America’s national anthem until 1931.

The tune of our national anthem – not the text – was written by English harpsichordist John Stafford Smith. It served as the anthem of the Anacreontic Society, a music and supper club in London featuring performances of instrumental and vocal music. The fact that it is challenging to sing is not a coincidence. “The Anacreontic Song” was designed to display the abilities of professional singers. It was performed immediately following dinner at every meeting, and it invariably impressed the crowd. [N.B. For more information about all things Star-Spangled Banner, visit the fascinating website of a not-for-profit run by Dr. Mark Clague:]

1814 was a pivotal year for Ludwig van Beethoven. It marked the end of the middle or “heroic” period of his creative life. He made his last public appearance as a solo pianist in 1814, in a performance of the “Archduke” Trio. And a new production of his 1805 opera Fidelio – originally named Leonore – was mounted, in part to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon (an historical fact that had a great impact on America’s War of 1812). For the 1814 revival, Beethoven made substantial revisions to his only opera in order, as he put it, “to rebuild the ruins of an old castle.” Beethoven’s fourth attempt to create an overture for his opera yielded a work drastically different from the previous efforts. Compared to the first three, known as Leonore Overtures Nos. 2, 3, and 1 (now confirmed to have been composed in that order), the Fidelio Overture is more compact in form and brighter in spirit. It is not a large-scale summary of the drama to follow, as the earlier overtures had been, but rather a succinct and energetic “curtain raiser.”

Something of the same driving energy and compactness of form is present in the Eighth Symphony. There is no introduction or any systematic unfolding of the musical material as there had been in all of Beethoven’s previous symphonies. Rather, “the music takes off like a house afire,” in the words of Michael Steinberg. Most of the symphony’s themes are short – just a few notes – and so are the phrases, causing the music’s character to shift rapidly and often. The second movement begins by quoting a canon Beethoven had composed as a musical jest for his friend, Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome. It is a lesson in what a great composer can do with minimal material, in this case a one-note idea: tik tik tik tik… The third movement is Beethoven’s only symphonic minuet, perhaps a tribute to his teacher of many years earlier, Joseph Haydn. The finale is a burst of vigor and invention, challenging its performers with some of the most rapid figuration of any music ever composed. In the coda, surprising “wrong notes” are pounded out emphatically, and responded to with endless ingenuity and wit.

Charles Ives composed his Variations on “America” as a teenager. Originally scored for solo organ, the work was unknown to William Schuman until he heard it performed at a concert dedicating the new organ at Lincoln Center in 1962. “I knew that I simply had to transcribe it,” he wrote. His orchestration captures the mock-serious tone of Ives’s original while adding new effects not possible on organ. A waltz is accompanied by pizzicato strings, castanets and tambourine enliven the Spanish-sounding fourth variation, and brass and percussion come to the fore for the final variation, leading to a rousing rendition of the final phrase on the words “let freedom ring!”

– Christopher Wilkins

For the premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s Chesapeake: Summer of 1814, Dana Bonstrom created the following historical narrative:

September 14, 2014 marks the bicentennial of the drafting of a poem, in the early morning aftermath of the Battle of Baltimore, by a young lawyer held captive on a British frigate in the outer precincts of Baltimore Harbor.

Chesapeake: Summer of 1814 is a meditation on the importance of music in the lives and endeavors of our forebears (and their British cousins) in the early years of the 19th century. The work is predicated almost exclusively on contemporary accounts of the music that was sung and played in the course of the prosecution of the War of 1812.

Prologue: Origins of a Melody
The work begins with a statement of To Anacreon in Heaven, the original song upon whose melody Francis Scott Key draped his poem. The song, written to honor a London gentlemen’s club, was well-known in America. In fact, Key had earlier borrowed the melody to set his poem celebrating the American naval hero, Stephen Decatur.

American Pastoral
This movement is built upon Durang’s Hornpipe, a dance written by William Hoffmaster for John Durang, America’s first professional dancer, and reputedly George Washington’s favorite performer. It underscores the maritime origins of the war, as well as the bumptious vigor of the citizens of the new republic. As Alexis de Toqueville wrote in 1831 “…the American has no time to tie himself to anything…instability, instead of occurring to him in the form of disasters, seems to give birth to nothing around him but wonders…”

Coincidentally, The Star-Spangled Banner is believed to have been first sung in public by John Durang’s son, Ferdinand, at a Baltimore tavern in early October 1814.

The Battle of Bladensburg: August 24, 1814
On August 19, 1814, British troops came ashore in Maryland. Until that time, the war had been waged principally in the Atlantic, and on the Canadian border. The British arrival in the Chesapeake signaled a determination to conclude the war quickly and decisively.

At Bladensburg a British expedition easily defeated a much larger but utterly disorganized American force, sending them into a panicked retreat. The British are here represented by the triumphant Rule Britannia!; the Americans by Hail, Columbia! ¬– begun proudly, but trailing off into quiet despair.

The British March on Washington: August 25, 1814
Washington D.C., in 1814, was little more than a village of 7,000 residents with no strategic value to Britain’s war aims. The town had symbolic value, however: the Americans had earlier invaded the Canadian city of York (now Toronto) and burned the parliament building to the ground. The British were determined to return the insult.

We first hear Mrs. Madison’s Minuet (composed for Dolley Madison by Alexander Reinagle in 1809) implying a state of normality in the White House, even as the British advance. Drums announce the approach of the British army; the advancing troops sing Handel’s chorus See, the Conquering Hero Comes! before setting torch to the White House and Capitol.

Onward, to Baltimore!
The British now moved on their true objective: Baltimore, center of American maritime activity, and home to the privateers who had harassed the British merchant and naval fleets for years.

The Battle of Baltimore was fought on land and water. At North Point, seven miles to the east of the city, a likely over-confident British force (God Save the King) encountered a defiant and determined American militia (Yankee Doodle, with lyrics written for recruitment of volunteers); the Americans handed the British a decisive and costly defeat.

Calm Before the Storm: Baltimore Harbor, September 13, 1814
The second front in the Battle of Baltimore was at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor on the Patapsco River, where the British navy planned an assault first on Fort McHenry, and then on the city itself. A contemplative calm descends before the battle erupts into a terrifying night-long bombardment of the fort by British cannon and rockets.

The Guns Fall Silent: September 14, 1814
In the quiet first moments of dawn, Francis Scott Key approaches a British officer aboard HM Frigate Surprise and asks his questions: “I beg your pardon: may I ask if you know what has happened? Has Baltimore fallen? Has Fort McHenry been seized? All of yesterday I saw our flag flying over the fort. And last night, at the height of battle, the sky made bright as day by the light of your rockets and flares, the flag was still there. But what of it now? The guns have fallen silent. Who is the victor? Who has won? Wait! The sun has found it. The Stars and Stripes still fly!”

Key’s Question Becomes a Song
As Francis Scott Key speaks, his words are taken up by the chorus and transformed into the first verse of what we recognize as our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

– Dana Bonstrom

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