The Fourth of July is a very special holiday for all Americans, and all of us have our own way of celebrating. Of course there’s the now-obligatory picnic, although nowadays it’s more likely to be a barbeque with friends instead of a drive down the road to a picnic on the grass. And some places still have parades, and almost everywhere there are fireworks and band concerts and just lots and lots of celebrating.
Patriotic music is a big part of the picture, and some of our radio stations spend the entire day (or an entire week-end, as with this year’s four-day week-end, thanks to the Fourth of July being on a Monday) playing nothing but “patriotic” or, at the very least, “all-American” music, honoring many of the great American composers. So we hear a lot of Copland and Ives and Ned Rorem and many, many American folk songs. All great fun, and all very appropriate.
And as it turns out, one of our most beloved 19th-century American composers, Stephen Foster, was born on July 4th, so we get a big dose of Stephen Foster as well (ever wonder what he had in mind when he wrote about Jeannie with the light brown hair “tripping where the bright steams play”? was she falling on her face in the river and he thought that was romantic?).
OK. We’ll move away from the disrespectful.
Back to American music. At my house, the playing of the Peter Wilhousky arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” has been part of the ritual for as long as I can remember. During the big day itself – or even, as I say, over a long holiday week-end if we are that lucky – we’ll hear many different arrangements (both orchestral and choral) of this stirring anthem. And even though it is a Christian hymn, non-Christian Americans don’t think of the piece as divisive or “slanted” or even particularly religious, simply because it came into our culture as a campfire spiritual and became one of the most inspirational songs of the American Civil War in the 1860s. It’s part of our musical heritage and our historical legacy.
The Wilhousky arrangement was special in our family because it was the one we learned in our high-school chorus (and our teacher, Mrs. Marie Reynolds Dobbs, still lives in Radford, VA and hopefully, if someone shows her this post, her memories will be as happy as mine as we think about this great national hymn). Wilhousky was a popular American composer, orchestra leader, and music educator, and he became famous for his arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” which is, according to some, probably the most famous arrangement of the hymn after the 1940s in the United States.
That fame was greatly strengthened in the 1950s or so (perhaps a little later – one big concert in New York was on November 6, 1958) when the 330-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the great Eugene Ormandy, teamed up to tour the country. Among the most popular selections performed on the tour was Wilhousky’s arrangement, and with the publication of the LP of some of the selections performed on tour, Julia Ward Howe’s hymn became standard fare for every chorus in the country. And I was lucky to be singing in one of them.
My own LP (actually, there were eventually two) is now long-gone, but there’s a very decent (and definitely stirring) performance available on YouTube. No, it’s not the Philadelphia and there’s no Eugene Ormandy but it’s pretty powerful. Have a listen – go here and you won’t come away unmoved. It’s a performance of the choir on tour at the Chautauqua Institution, recorded on June 23, 2008.
Almost equally stirring – for this listener – was Sunday’s broadcast of Kent Tritle’s The Choral Mix, broadcast on WQXR in New York (and hopefully syndicated throughout America). It was a super show, and this one – appropriately enough – featured performances of the Singing Sergeants of the United States Air Force. And yes, the broadcast ended with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – not the Wilhousky arrangement but a super-stirring performance anyways.
Happy Birthday, America.