Concerto No. 2: ANTHEM (world premiere, LA Phil commission with generous support from the Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissions Fund)
Michael SCHACHTER/Caroline SHAW/Tyshawn SOREY/Davóne TINES (created by Davóne TINES, text by Mahogany L. BROWNE)
Length: c. 20 minutes
About this Piece
Before I centered my musical life on singing, I played the violin for 14 years. As a kid, I was fascinated and physically transfixed by the waves of sound symphony-orchestra string sections made. I wanted to be a part of it. I was concertmaster of my high school’s chamber orchestra and went on to be general manager, then president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, living out my obsession with orchestral sound from the back of the second-violin section. The concerto, particularly the violin concerto, revealed itself as a paragon of orchestral expression, and mastering the concerto repertoire was a journey I stared at as if it were the base of Mount Everest. When I decided I would take on other mountains to climb, I left the violin behind, but kept the desire to engage in this soloist v. orchestra form. The creation of devised concertos for voice and orchestra has been my way of reconnecting to that young-born desire. I wanted to, as a vocalist, hold that hallowed instrumental space. The inherent advantage or challenge with singing is that there are words to contend with. But, there is also the beguiling opportunity to say something.
With Concerto No. 2: ANTHEM I wanted to meet the scale of the opportunity to present something at the Hollywood Bowl. The historic and storied venue, nestled in the heart of the land that bore contemporary commercial storytelling, is literally shaped like a megaphone; and offering this possibility of critiquing American ideals with the hope of offering a positive alternative, is what I choose to say with that megaphone.
Concerto No. 2: ANTHEM presents the hope of possibility—hopefully on a national scale. It seeks to interrogate American ideals as summed up by the “Star-Spangled Banner” and present the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as an alternative to which we, as a nation, could newly aspire.
The lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were penned by the 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key on September 14, 1814, as part of the larger document, the “Defense of Fort McHenry.” Key was famously inspired by seeing the American Flag triumphantly remain flying over the Outer Baltimore Harbor after a night of bombardment by the British Royal Navy, signifying American victory in the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. The lyrics were then excerpted and set to a popular, pre-existing British tune written by John Stafford Smith called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the official drinking song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century British gentleman’s club for amateur musicians.
The “Star-Spangled Banner” is a complicated song. This complication shows and underlines itself in its lesser-known verses of which many are not aware. It talks about blood washing away evidence of one’s foes, and brash revelry in the inability of the British to protect “the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
There has been much debate over centuries, at this point, about the implications of the use of the terms “hireling and slave.” Some argue that this was in direct reference to African-American slavery. In a 2016 New York Times interview, University of Michigan musicologist and Anthem expert Mark Clague outlines that “The reference to slaves is about the use, and in some sense the manipulation, of Black Americans to fight for the British, with the promise of freedom,” And also notes Key’s documented racist ideologies referring to Black people as “a distinct and inferior race.” Others attempt to deflect this argument by presenting that the terms were meant to refer to indentured servants, many of whom were white.
This debate is a critical factor in the social analysis of the text, but the problematic nature of the song is not solely wrested upon the appearance of those terms. The song that has come to represent America is about celebration at the victory of one nation over another. It extols an idea that sovereignty is gained through the conquering of an “other”. These essentially violent, colonialist ideals can be seen as a foundation—or unacknowledged foundation—of critical aspects of our country that are deeply problematic, harmful, if not altogether counter to the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, might be an apt alternative, offering ideals of nationhood by means more conducive to the successful functioning of a society; namely, the valuing of collective unity as the foundation of sovereignty.
To help realize and articulate a proposition of this scale, I’ve invited a close group of beautifully diverse colleagues to fill in a concerto structure I created; like a very precise mad-lib. They’ve deftly realized their parts of this storytelling arc to help me and the piece ultimately say: “Here’s where we are. What if we went a different way?”
Michael Schachter’s setting of the “Star-Spangled Banner” (“Movement 1. CODE: The Star-Spangled Banner”) presents the first three verses of the song. The first verse, marked “Maniacally Majestic,” is an over-the-top presentation of the anthem as we know it. I asked Mike to think “Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl, MBM Musical, Disney World” to really show the bedazzled reverence with which the song is commonly held. That ecstatic presentation then melts, even decomposes, into a creepier second verse, whose words describe the mysterious tension and anticipation of the battlefield. The third verse is a garish recapitulation of the first. The playful and triumphant tropes of a marching band are now made to fray and splinter as the song tries to reclaim its former glory, but is unable to unsee or undo the gloom of the bloodied battlefield through which it has trudged. The primally violent, destructive chords from the famous 11/4 bar of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring momentarily reveal a dark underlining machinery.
In this context, the final “land of the free and the home of the brave” intrinsically feels like more of a question than a proclamation. Mahogany L. Browne, Lincoln Center’s first-ever poet in residence, picks up this question, asking:
Who said the free?
Can’t be me
Not, in country that deems me more womb than human
More shadow than Black gold…
I asked her to make a piece of writing in line with Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again.” She answered the call and brings the proposition in the present, stating “Let America be America, finally.” The relationship and parody between this syntax and the slogan of a recent former president should not be lost on the listener.
Mahogany’s words manifest a liminal space created by Caroline Shaw’s “Movement 2a. CODE SWITCH: Americana?” in which pieces of musical Americana, like objects, are picked up, considered, questioned, then set aside.
Aaron Copland’s late-1800s American hallmark “Simple Gifts” from his first set of Old American Songs is quoted, “tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free,” repeated and fragmented to point to the nation that this simple gift of freedom is perhaps not bestowed upon all. Next, the Civil-War anthem “Dixie” is quoted and combines lyrics from both the original Confederate version that longs for “the land of cotton” and the satirical Union version that points out that that land is ironically a place where “cotton’s king and men are chattels.”
The next object is comprised of Irving Berlin’s ubiquitous 1918 song “God Bless America,” which was championed by contralto Kate Smith, popularly known as “The First Lady of Radio.” The song became a signature of Smith’s, alongside definitively racist minstrel songs, particularly “Pickaninny Heaven.” “Pickaninny,” derived from a term used neutrally in the West Indies, became a North-American racial slur caricaturing small children of African descent as simple-minded pests. The song gleefully employs stereotypes of watermelons and fried pork chops abundantly occupying an afterlife for these death-fated children. The juxtaposition of these two songs is intended to demonstrate that a figure extolling American ideals, can also be the purveyor of deeply problematic, and perhaps profoundly un-American ideals. This is not intended to dismiss Smith’s importance as a quintessential American figure, but to point out the complication of a person simultaneously holding opposing truths; a nuance of identity that may be true for many of us. This is also meant to call to the difficult opposing truths held within the “Star-Spangled Banner” itself.
The last stop on this journey through Americana is the spiritual “Oh freedom” as set by Tyshawn Sorey (Movement 2b: after Oh Freedom). Negro Spirituals are seen as America’s foundational musical literature. They exist in the tension of the irony that beautiful art can be born from the ugliest of circumstances. In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass writes
they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.
The song “Oh Freedom” is prayer, an indelible call for change. I asked Tyshawn to set the song as a march that rises from under the tectonic plates; an intriguing proposition for a composer I know to rarely write in symmetrical time signatures. I also asked him to have the song build toward a definitely bold dominant seventh chord. This is meant to symbolically hold and bear the tension of all of humanity that has ever yearned for something better.
The cathartic resolution of this tension comes in the form of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The lyrics were written by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. About the song, James Weldon Johnson writes:
A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words, and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.
Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used. The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”
The song, born of a need to honor progress through collective resilience, offers a different path to sovereignty or nationalism by way of truer unity. This is presented without the existence of a straw-man “other,” or victim, or enemy to be conquered. The words extoll the honoring of the individual’s voice as part of the collective “Lift every voice and sing… with the harmonies of liberty” in order to acknowledge a past “stony the road we trod… we have come over a way that with tears has been watered… out from a gloomy past,” while standing united in the present in order to hope for a future that builds on that past, or builds beyond it: “Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way, keep us forever in the path we pray.”
Concerto No. 2: ANTHEM could be construed as a socio-political statement, or an open invitation for Americans to reconsider our foundations and core ideals. It could also simply be seen as a soloist with an orchestra producing a kaleidoscope of virtuosic sound.
Please take from it what you will.